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

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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 14 of 16)
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that she had in no way communicated with her former lover, nor he with
her, since their parting in the presence of her father. This led to some
strange scenes between them which need not be detailed; their result was
soon to take a catastrophic shape.

One dark quiet evening, about two months after the marriage, a man
entered the gate admitting from the highway to the park and avenue which
ran up to the house. He arrived within two hundred yards of the walls,
when he left the gravelled drive and drew near to the castle by a
roundabout path leading into a shrubbery. Here he stood still. In a few
minutes the strokes of the castle-clock resounded, and then a female
figure entered the same secluded nook from an opposite direction. There
the two indistinct persons leapt together like a pair of dewdrops on a
leaf; and then they stood apart, facing each other, the woman looking
down.

'Emmeline, you begged me to come, and here I am, Heaven forgive me!' said
the man hoarsely.

'You are going to emigrate, Alwyn,' she said in broken accents. 'I have
heard of it; you sail from Plymouth in three days in the _Western
Glory_?'

'Yes. I can live in England no longer. Life is as death to me here,'
says he.

'My life is even worse - worse than death. Death would not have driven me
to this extremity. Listen, Alwyn - I have sent for you to beg to go with
you, or at least to be near you - to do anything so that it be not to stay
here.'

'To go away with me?' he said in a startled tone.

'Yes, yes - or under your direction, or by your help in some way! Don't
be horrified at me - you must bear with me whilst I implore it. Nothing
short of cruelty would have driven me to this. I could have borne my
doom in silence had I been left unmolested; but he tortures me, and I
shall soon be in the grave if I cannot escape.'

To his shocked inquiry how her husband tortured her, the Duchess said
that it was by jealousy. 'He tries to wring admissions from me
concerning you,' she said, 'and will not believe that I have not
communicated with you since my engagement to him was settled by my
father, and I was forced to agree to it.'

The poor curate said that this was the heaviest news of all. 'He has not
personally ill-used you?' he asked.

'Yes,' she whispered.

'What has he done?'

She looked fearfully around, and said, sobbing: 'In trying to make me
confess to what I have never done, he adopts plans I dare not describe
for terrifying me into a weak state, so that I may own to anything! I
resolved to write to you, as I had no other friend.' She added, with
dreary irony, 'I thought I would give him some ground for his suspicion,
so as not to disgrace his judgment.'

'Do you really mean, Emmeline,' he tremblingly inquired, 'that you - that
you want to fly with me?'

'Can you think that I would act otherwise than in earnest at such a time
as this?'

He was silent for a minute or more. 'You must not go with me,' he said.

'Why?'

'It would be sin.'

'It _cannot_ be sin, for I have never wanted to commit sin in my life;
and it isn't likely I would begin now, when I pray every day to die and
be sent to Heaven out of my misery!'

'But it is wrong, Emmeline, all the same.'

'Is it wrong to run away from the fire that scorches you?'

'It would look wrong, at any rate, in this case.'

'Alwyn, Alwyn, take me, I beseech you!' she burst out. 'It is not right
in general, I know, but it is such an exceptional instance, this. Why
has such a severe strain been put upon me? I was doing no harm, injuring
no one, helping many people, and expecting happiness; yet trouble came.
Can it be that God holds me in derision? I had no supporter - I gave way;
and now my life is a burden and a shame to me . . . Oh, if you only knew
how much to me this request to you is - how my life is wrapped up in it,
you could not deny me!'

'This is almost beyond endurance - Heaven support us,' he groaned. 'Emmy,
you are the Duchess of Hamptonshire, the Duke of Hamptonshire's wife; you
must not go with me!'

'And am I then refused? - Oh, am I refused?' she cried frantically.
'Alwyn, Alwyn, do you say it indeed to me?'

'Yes, I do, dear, tender heart! I do most sadly say it. You must not
go. Forgive me, for there is no alternative but refusal. Though I die,
though you die, we must not fly together. It is forbidden in God's law.
Good-bye, for always and ever!'

He tore himself away, hastened from the shrubbery, and vanished among the
trees.

Three days after this meeting and farewell, Alwyn, his soft, handsome
features stamped with a haggard hardness that ten years of ordinary wear
and tear in the world could scarcely have produced, sailed from Plymouth
on a drizzling morning, in the passenger-ship _Western Glory_. When the
land had faded behind him he mechanically endeavoured to school himself
into a stoical frame of mind. His attempt, backed up by the strong moral
staying power that had enabled him to resist the passionate temptation to
which Emmeline, in her reckless trustfulness, had exposed him, was
rewarded by a certain kind of success, though the murmuring stretch of
waters whereon he gazed day after day too often seemed to be articulating
to him in tones of her well-remembered voice.

He framed on his journey rules of conduct for reducing to mild
proportions the feverish regrets which would occasionally arise and
agitate him, when he indulged in visions of what might have been had he
not hearkened to the whispers of conscience. He fixed his thoughts for
so many hours a day on philosophical passages in the volumes he had
brought with him, allowing himself now and then a few minutes' thought of
Emmeline, with the strict yet reluctant niggardliness of an ailing
epicure proportioning the rank drinks that cause his malady. The voyage
was marked by the usual incidents of a sailing-passage in those days - a
storm, a calm, a man overboard, a birth, and a funeral - the latter sad
event being one in which he, as the only clergyman on board, officiated,
reading the service ordained for the purpose. The ship duly arrived at
Boston early in the month following, and thence he proceeded to
Providence to seek out a distant relative.

After a short stay at Providence he returned again to Boston, and by
applying himself to a serious occupation made good progress in shaking
off the dreary melancholy which enveloped him even now. Distracted and
weakened in his beliefs by his recent experiences, he decided that he
could not for a time worthily fill the office of a minister of religion,
and applied for the mastership of a school. Some introductions, given
him before starting, were useful now, and he soon became known as a
respectable scholar and gentleman to the trustees of one of the colleges.
This ultimately led to his retirement from the school and installation in
the college as Professor of rhetoric and oratory.

Here and thus he lived on, exerting himself solely because of a
conscientious determination to do his duty. He passed his winter
evenings in turning sonnets and elegies, often giving his thoughts voice
in 'Lines to an Unfortunate Lady,' while his summer leisure at the same
hour would be spent in watching the lengthening shadows from his window,
and fancifully comparing them with the shades of his own life. If he
walked, he mentally inquired which was the eastern quarter of the
landscape, and thought of two thousand miles of water that way, and of
what was beyond it. In a word he was at all spare times dreaming of her
who was only a memory to him, and would probably never be more.

Nine years passed by, and under their wear and tear Alwyn Hill's face
lost a great many of the attractive characteristics which had formerly
distinguished it. He was kind to his pupils and affable to all who came
in contact with him; but the kernel of his life, his secret, was kept as
snugly shut up as though he had been dumb. In talking to his
acquaintances of England and his life there, he omitted the episode of
Batton Castle and Emmeline as if it had no existence in his calendar at
all. Though of towering importance to himself, it had filled but a short
and small fragment of time, an ephemeral season which would have been
wellnigh imperceptible, even to him, at this distance, but for the
incident it enshrined.

One day, at this date, when cursorily glancing over an old English
newspaper, he observed a paragraph which, short as it was, contained for
him whole tomes of thrilling information - rung with more passion-stirring
rhythm than the collected cantos of all the poets. It was an
announcement of the death of the Duke of Hamptonshire, leaving behind him
a widow, but no children.

The current of Alwyn's thoughts now completely changed. On looking again
at the newspaper he found it to be one that was sent him long ago, and
had been carelessly thrown aside. But for an accidental overhauling of
the waste journals in his study he might not have known of the event for
years. At this moment of reading the Duke had already been dead seven
months. Alwyn could now no longer bind himself down to machine-made
synecdoche, antithesis, and climax, being full of spontaneous specimens
of all these rhetorical forms, which he dared not utter. Who shall
wonder that his mind luxuriated in dreams of a sweet possibility now laid
open for the first time these many years? for Emmeline was to him now as
ever the one dear thing in all the world. The issue of his silent
romancing was that he resolved to return to her at the very earliest
moment.

But he could not abandon his professional work on the instant. He did
not get really quite free from engagements till four months later; but,
though suffering throes of impatience continually, he said to himself
every day: 'If she has continued to love me nine years she will love me
ten; she will think the more tenderly of me when her present hours of
solitude shall have done their proper work; old times will revive with
the cessation of her recent experience, and every day will favour my
return.'

The enforced interval soon passed, and he duly arrived in England,
reaching the village of Batton on a certain winter day between twelve and
thirteen months subsequent to the time of the Duke's death.

It was evening; yet such was Alwyn's impatience that he could not forbear
taking, this very night, one look at the castle which Emmeline had
entered as unhappy mistress ten years before. He threaded the park
trees, gazed in passing at well-known outlines which rose against the dim
sky, and was soon interested in observing that lively country-people, in
parties of two and three, were walking before and behind him up the
interlaced avenue to the castle gateway. Knowing himself to be safe from
recognition, Alwyn inquired of one of these pedestrians what was going
on.

'Her Grace gives her tenantry a ball to-night, to keep up the old custom
of the Duke and his father before him, which she does not wish to
change.'

'Indeed. Has she lived here entirely alone since the Duke's death?'

'Quite alone. But though she doesn't receive company herself, she likes
the village people to enjoy themselves, and often has 'em here.'

'Kind-hearted, as always!' thought Alwyn.

On reaching the castle he found that the great gates at the tradesmen's
entrance were thrown back against the wall as if they were never to be
closed again; that the passages and rooms in that wing were brilliantly
lighted up, some of the numerous candles guttering down over the green
leaves which decorated them, and upon the silk dresses of the happy
farmers' wives as they passed beneath, each on her husband's arm. Alwyn
found no difficulty in marching in along with the rest, the castle being
Liberty Hall to-night. He stood unobserved in a corner of the large
apartment where dancing was about to begin.

'Her Grace, though hardly out of mourning, will be sure to come down and
lead off the dance with neighbour Bates,' said one.

'Who is neighbour Bates?' asked Alwyn.

'An old man she respects much - the oldest of her tenant-farmers. He was
seventy-eight his last birthday.'

'Ah, to be sure!' said Alwyn, at his ease. 'I remember.'

The dancers formed in line, and waited. A door opened at the farther end
of the hall, and a lady in black silk came forth. She bowed, smiled, and
proceeded to the top of the dance.

'Who is that lady?' said Alwyn, in a puzzled tone. 'I thought you told
me that the Duchess of Hamptonshire - '

'That is the Duchess,' said his informant.

'But there is another?'

'No; there is no other.'

'But she is not the Duchess of Hamptonshire - who used to - ' Alwyn's
tongue stuck to his mouth, he could get no farther.

'What's the matter?' said his acquaintance. Alwyn had retired, and was
supporting himself against the wall.

The wretched Alwyn murmured something about a stitch in his side from
walking. Then the music struck up, the dance went on, and his neighbour
became so interested in watching the movements of this strange Duchess
through its mazes as to forget Alwyn for a while.

It gave him an opportunity to brace himself up. He was a man who had
suffered, and he could suffer again. 'How came that person to be your
Duchess?' he asked in a firm, distinct voice, when he had attained
complete self-command. 'Where is her other Grace of Hamptonshire? There
certainly was another. I know it.'

'Oh, the previous one! Yes, yes. She ran away years and years ago with
the young curate. Mr. Hill was the young man's name, if I recollect.'

'No! She never did. What do you mean by that?' he said.

'Yes, she certainly ran away. She met the curate in the shrubbery about
a couple of months after her marriage with the Duke. There were folks
who saw the meeting and heard some words of their talk. They arranged to
go, and she sailed from Plymouth with him a day or two afterward.'

'That's not true.'

'Then 'tis the queerest lie ever told by man. Her father believed and
knew to his dying day that she went with him; and so did the Duke, and
everybody about here. Ay, there was a fine upset about it at the time.
The Duke traced her to Plymouth.'

'Traced her to Plymouth?'

'He traced her to Plymouth, and set on his spies; and they found that she
went to the shipping-office, and inquired if Mr. Alwyn Hill had entered
his name as passenger by the _Western Glory_; and when she found that he
had, she booked herself for the same ship, but not in her real name. When
the vessel had sailed a letter reached the Duke from her, telling him
what she had done. She never came back here again. His Grace lived by
himself a number of years, and married this lady only twelve months
before he died.'

Alwyn was in a state of indescribable bewilderment. But, unmanned as he
was, he called the next day on the, to him, spurious Duchess of
Hamptonshire. At first she was alarmed at his statement, then cold, then
she was won over by his condition to give confidence for confidence. She
showed him a letter which had been found among the papers of the late
Duke, corroborating what Alwyn's informant had detailed. It was from
Emmeline, bearing the postmarked date at which the _Western Glory_
sailed, and briefly stated that she had emigrated by that ship to
America.

Alwyn applied himself body and mind to unravel the remainder of the
mystery. The story repeated to him was always the same: 'She ran away
with the curate.' A strangely circumstantial piece of intelligence was
added to this when he had pushed his inquiries a little further. There
was given him the name of a waterman at Plymouth, who had come forward at
the time that she was missed and sought for by her husband, and had
stated that he put her on board the _Western Glory_ at dusk one evening
before that vessel sailed.

After several days of search about the alleys and quays of Plymouth
Barbican, during which these impossible words, 'She ran off with the
curate,' became branded on his brain, Alwyn found this important
waterman. He was positive as to the truth of his story, still
remembering the incident well, and he described in detail the lady's
dress, as he had long ago described it to her husband, which description
corresponded in every particular with the dress worn by Emmeline on the
evening of their parting.

Before proceeding to the other side of the Atlantic to continue his
inquiries there, the puzzled and distracted Alwyn set himself to
ascertain the address of Captain Wheeler, who had commanded the _Western
Glory_ in the year of Alwyn's voyage out, and immediately wrote a letter
to him on the subject.

The only circumstances which the sailor could recollect or discover from
his papers in connection with such a story were, that a woman bearing the
name which Alwyn had mentioned as fictitious certainly did come aboard
for a voyage he made about that time; that she took a common berth among
the poorest emigrants; that she died on the voyage out, at about five
days' sail from Plymouth; that she seemed a lady in manners and
education. Why she had not applied for a first-class passage, why she
had no trunks, they could not guess, for though she had little money in
her pocket she had that about her which would have fetched it. 'We
buried her at sea,' continued the captain. 'A young parson, one of the
cabin-passengers, read the burial-service over her, I remember well.'

The whole scene and proceedings darted upon Alwyn's recollection in a
moment. It was a fine breezy morning on that long-past voyage out, and
he had been told that they were running at the rate of a hundred and odd
miles a day. The news went round that one of the poor young women in the
other part of the vessel was ill of fever, and delirious. The tidings
caused no little alarm among all the passengers, for the sanitary
conditions of the ship were anything but satisfactory. Shortly after
this the doctor announced that she had died. Then Alwyn had learnt that
she was laid out for burial in great haste, because of the danger that
would have been incurred by delay. And next the funeral scene rose
before him, and the prominent part that he had taken in that solemn
ceremony. The captain had come to him, requesting him to officiate, as
there was no chaplain on board. This he had agreed to do; and as the sun
went down with a blaze in his face he read amidst them all assembled: 'We
therefore commit her body to the deep, to be turned into corruption,
looking for the resurrection of the body when the sea shall give up her
dead.'

The captain also forwarded the addresses of the ship's matron and of
other persons who had been engaged on board at the date. To these Alwyn
went in the course of time. A categorical description of the clothes of
the dead truant, the colour of her hair, and other things, extinguished
for ever all hope of a mistake in identity.

At last, then, the course of events had become clear. On that unhappy
evening when he left Emmeline in the shrubbery, forbidding her to follow
him because it would be a sin, she must have disobeyed. She must have
followed at his heels silently through the darkness, like a poor pet
animal that will not be driven back. She could have accumulated nothing
for the journey more than she might have carried in her hand; and thus
poorly provided she must have embarked. Her intention had doubtless been
to make her presence on board known to him as soon as she could muster
courage to do so.

Thus the ten years' chapter of Alwyn Hill's romance wound itself up under
his eyes. That the poor young woman in the steerage had been the young
Duchess of Hamptonshire was never publicly disclosed. Hill had no longer
any reason for remaining in England, and soon after left its shores with
no intention to return. Previous to his departure he confided his story
to an old friend from his native town - grandfather of the person who now
relates it to you.

* * * * *

A few members, including the Bookworm, seemed to be impressed by the
quiet gentleman's tale; but the member we have called the Spark - who, by
the way, was getting somewhat tinged with the light of other days, and
owned to eight-and-thirty - walked daintily about the room instead of
sitting down by the fire with the majority and said that for his part he
preferred something more lively than the last story - something in which
such long-separated lovers were ultimately united. He also liked stories
that were more modern in their date of action than those he had heard to-
day.

Members immediately requested him to give them a specimen, to which the
Spark replied that he didn't mind, as far as that went. And though the
Vice-President, the Man of Family, the Colonel, and others, looked at
their watches, and said they must soon retire to their respective
quarters in the hotel adjoining, they all decided to sit out the Spark's
story.




DAME THE TENTH - THE HONOURABLE LAURA
By the Spark


It was a cold and gloomy Christmas Eve. The mass of cloud overhead was
almost impervious to such daylight as still lingered on; the snow lay
several inches deep upon the ground, and the slanting downfall which
still went on threatened to considerably increase its thickness before
the morning. The Prospect Hotel, a building standing near the wild north
coast of Lower Wessex, looked so lonely and so useless at such a time as
this that a passing wayfarer would have been led to forget summer
possibilities, and to wonder at the commercial courage which could invest
capital, on the basis of the popular taste for the picturesque, in a
country subject to such dreary phases. That the district was alive with
visitors in August seemed but a dim tradition in weather so totally
opposed to all that tempts mankind from home. However, there the hotel
stood immovable; and the cliffs, creeks, and headlands which were the
primary attractions of the spot, rising in full view on the opposite side
of the valley, were now but stern angular outlines, while the townlet in
front was tinged over with a grimy dirtiness rather than the pearly gray
that in summer lent such beauty to its appearance.

Within the hotel commanding this outlook the landlord walked idly about
with his hands in his pockets, not in the least expectant of a visitor,
and yet unable to settle down to any occupation which should compensate
in some degree for the losses that winter idleness entailed on his
regular profession. So little, indeed, was anybody expected, that the
coffee-room waiter - a genteel boy, whose plated buttons in summer were as
close together upon the front of his short jacket as peas in a pod - now
appeared in the back yard, metamorphosed into the unrecognizable shape of
a rough country lad in corduroys and hobnailed boots, sweeping the snow
away, and talking the local dialect in all its purity, quite oblivious of
the new polite accent he had learned in the hot weather from the well-
behaved visitors. The front door was closed, and, as if to express still
more fully the sealed and chrysalis state of the establishment, a sand-
bag was placed at the bottom to keep out the insidious snowdrift, the
wind setting in directly from that quarter.

The landlord, entering his own parlour, walked to the large fire which it
was absolutely necessary to keep up for his comfort, no such blaze
burning in the coffee-room or elsewhere, and after giving it a stir
returned to a table in the lobby, whereon lay the visitors' book - now
closed and pushed back against the wall. He carelessly opened it; not a
name had been entered there since the 19th of the previous November, and
that was only the name of a man who had arrived on a tricycle, who,
indeed, had not been asked to enter at all.

While he was engaged thus the evening grew darker; but before it was as
yet too dark to distinguish objects upon the road winding round the back
of the cliffs, the landlord perceived a black spot on the distant white,
which speedily enlarged itself and drew near. The probabilities were
that this vehicle - for a vehicle of some sort it seemed to be - would pass
by and pursue its way to the nearest railway-town as others had done.
But, contrary to the landlord's expectation, as he stood conning it
through the yet unshuttered windows, the solitary object, on reaching the
corner, turned into the hotel-front, and drove up to the door.

It was a conveyance particularly unsuited to such a season and weather,
being nothing more substantial than an open basket-carriage drawn by a
single horse. Within sat two persons, of different sexes, as could soon
be discerned, in spite of their muffled attire. The man held the reins,


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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 14 of 16)