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 15 of 16)
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and the lady had got some shelter from the storm by clinging close to his
side. The landlord rang the hostler's bell to attract the attention of
the stable-man, for the approach of the visitors had been deadened to
noiselessness by the snow, and when the hostler had come to the horse's
head the gentleman and lady alighted, the landlord meeting them in the
hall.

The male stranger was a foreign-looking individual of about eight-and-
twenty. He was close-shaven, excepting a moustache, his features being
good, and even handsome. The lady, who stood timidly behind him, seemed
to be much younger - possibly not more than eighteen, though it was
difficult to judge either of her age or appearance in her present
wrappings.

The gentleman expressed his wish to stay till the morning, explaining
somewhat unnecessarily, considering that the house was an inn, that they
had been unexpectedly benighted on their drive. Such a welcome being
given them as landlords can give in dull times, the latter ordered fires
in the drawing and coffee-rooms, and went to the boy in the yard, who
soon scrubbed himself up, dragged his disused jacket from its box,
polished the buttons with his sleeve, and appeared civilized in the hall.
The lady was shown into a room where she could take off her snow-damped
garments, which she sent down to be dried, her companion, meanwhile,
putting a couple of sovereigns on the table, as if anxious to make
everything smooth and comfortable at starting, and requesting that a
private sitting-room might be got ready. The landlord assured him that
the best upstairs parlour - usually public - should be kept private this
evening, and sent the maid to light the candles. Dinner was prepared for
them, and, at the gentleman's desire, served in the same apartment;
where, the young lady having joined him, they were left to the rest and
refreshment they seemed to need.

That something was peculiar in the relations of the pair had more than
once struck the landlord, though wherein that peculiarity lay it was hard
to decide. But that his guest was one who paid his way readily had been
proved by his conduct, and dismissing conjectures, he turned to practical
affairs.

About nine o'clock he re-entered the hall, and, everything being done for
the day, again walked up and down, occasionally gazing through the glass
door at the prospect without, to ascertain how the weather was
progressing. Contrary to prognostication, snow had ceased falling, and,
with the rising of the moon, the sky had partially cleared, light fleeces
of cloud drifting across the silvery disk. There was every sign that a
frost was going to set in later on. For these reasons the distant rising
road was even more distinct now between its high banks than it had been
in the declining daylight. Not a track or rut broke the virgin surface
of the white mantle that lay along it, all marks left by the lately
arrived travellers having been speedily obliterated by the flakes falling
at the time.

And now the landlord beheld by the light of the moon a sight very similar
to that he had seen by the light of day. Again a black spot was
advancing down the road that margined the coast. He was in a moment or
two enabled to perceive that the present vehicle moved onward at a more
headlong pace than the little carriage which had preceded it; next, that
it was a brougham drawn by two powerful horses; next, that this carriage,
like the former one, was bound for the hotel-door. This desirable
feature of resemblance caused the landlord to once more withdraw the sand-
bag and advance into the porch.

An old gentleman was the first to alight. He was followed by a young
one, and both unhesitatingly came forward.

'Has a young lady, less than nineteen years of age, recently arrived here
in the company of a man some years her senior?' asked the old gentleman,
in haste. 'A man cleanly shaven for the most part, having the appearance
of an opera-singer, and calling himself Signor Smithozzi?'

'We have had arrivals lately,' said the landlord, in the tone of having
had twenty at least - not caring to acknowledge the attenuated state of
business that afflicted Prospect Hotel in winter.

'And among them can your memory recall two persons such as those I
describe? - the man a sort of baritone?'

'There certainly is or was a young couple staying in the hotel; but I
could not pronounce on the compass of the gentleman's voice.'

'No, no; of course not. I am quite bewildered. They arrived in a basket-
carriage, altogether badly provided?'

'They came in a carriage, I believe, as most of our visitors do.'

'Yes, yes. I must see them at once. Pardon my want of ceremony, and
show us in to where they are.'

'But, sir, you forget. Suppose the lady and gentleman I mean are not the
lady and gentleman you mean? It would be awkward to allow you to rush in
upon them just now while they are at dinner, and might cause me to lose
their future patronage.'

'True, true. They may not be the same persons. My anxiety, I perceive,
makes me rash in my assumptions!'

'Upon the whole, I think they must be the same, Uncle Quantock,' said the
young man, who had not till now spoken. And turning to the landlord:
'You possibly have not such a large assemblage of visitors here, on this
somewhat forbidding evening, that you quite forget how this couple
arrived, and what the lady wore?' His tone of addressing the landlord
had in it a quiet frigidity that was not without irony.

'Ah! what she wore; that's it, James. What did she wear?'

'I don't usually take stock of my guests' clothing,' replied the landlord
drily, for the ready money of the first arrival had decidedly biassed him
in favour of that gentleman's cause. 'You can certainly see some of it
if you want to,' he added carelessly, 'for it is drying by the kitchen
fire.'

Before the words were half out of his mouth the old gentleman had
exclaimed, 'Ah!' and precipitated himself along what seemed to be the
passage to the kitchen; but as this turned out to be only the entrance to
a dark china-closet, he hastily emerged again, after a collision with the
inn-crockery had told him of his mistake.

'I beg your pardon, I'm sure; but if you only knew my feelings (which I
cannot at present explain), you would make allowances. Anything I have
broken I will willingly pay for.'

'Don't mention it, sir,' said the landlord. And showing the way, they
adjourned to the kitchen without further parley. The eldest of the party
instantly seized the lady's cloak, that hung upon a clothes-horse,
exclaiming: 'Ah! yes, James, it is hers. I knew we were on their track.'

'Yes, it is hers,' answered the nephew quietly, for he was much less
excited than his companion.

'Show us their room at once,' said the old man.

'William, have the lady and gentleman in the front sitting-room finished
dining?'

'Yes, sir, long ago,' said the hundred plated buttons.

'Then show up these gentlemen to them at once. You stay here to-night,
gentlemen, I presume? Shall the horses be taken out?'

'Feed the horses and wash their mouths. Whether we stay or not depends
upon circumstances,' said the placid younger man, as he followed his
uncle and the waiter to the staircase.

'I think, Nephew James,' said the former, as he paused with his foot on
the first step - 'I think we had better not be announced, but take them by
surprise. She may go throwing herself out of the window, or do some
equally desperate thing!'

'Yes, certainly, we'll enter unannounced.' And he called back the lad
who preceded them.

'I cannot sufficiently thank you, James, for so effectually aiding me in
this pursuit!' exclaimed the old gentleman, taking the other by the hand.
'My increasing infirmities would have hindered my overtaking her
to-night, had it not been for your timely aid.'

'I am only too happy, uncle, to have been of service to you in this or
any other matter. I only wish I could have accompanied you on a
pleasanter journey. However, it is advisable to go up to them at once,
or they may hear us.' And they softly ascended the stairs.

* * * * *

On the door being opened, a room too large to be comfortable, lit by the
best branch-candlesticks of the hotel, was disclosed, before the fire of
which apartment the truant couple were sitting, very innocently looking
over the hotel scrap-book and the album containing views of the
neighbourhood. No sooner had the old man entered than the young lady - who
now showed herself to be quite as young as described, and remarkably
prepossessing as to features - perceptibly turned pale. When the nephew
entered, she turned still paler, as if she were going to faint. The
young man described as an opera-singer rose with grim civility, and
placed chairs for his visitors.

'Caught you, thank God!' said the old gentleman breathlessly.

'Yes, worse luck, my lord!' murmured Signor Smithozzi, in native London-
English, that distinguished alien having, in fact, first seen the light
in the vicinity of the City Road. 'She would have been mine to-morrow.
And I think that under the peculiar circumstances it would be
wiser - considering how soon the breath of scandal will tarnish a lady's
fame - to let her be mine to-morrow, just the same.'

'Never!' said the old man. 'Here is a lady under age, without
experience - child-like in her maiden innocence and virtue - whom you have
plied by your vile arts, till this morning at dawn - '

'Lord Quantock, were I not bound to respect your gray hairs - '

'Till this morning at dawn you tempted her away from her father's roof.
What blame can attach to her conduct that will not, on a full explanation
of the matter, be readily passed over in her and thrown entirely on you?
Laura, you return at once with me. I should not have arrived, after all,
early enough to deliver you, if it had not been for the disinterestedness
of your cousin, Captain Northbrook, who, on my discovering your flight
this morning, offered with a promptitude for which I can never
sufficiently thank him, to accompany me on my journey, as the only male
relative I have near me. Come, do you hear? Put on your things; we are
off at once.'

'I don't want to go!' pouted the young lady.

'I daresay you don't,' replied her father drily. 'But children never
know what's best for them. So come along, and trust to my opinion.'

Laura was silent, and did not move, the opera gentleman looking
helplessly into the fire, and the lady's cousin sitting meditatively
calm, as the single one of the four whose position enabled him to survey
the whole escapade with the cool criticism of a comparative outsider.

'I say to you, Laura, as the father of a daughter under age, that you
instantly come with me. What? Would you compel me to use physical force
to reclaim you?'

'I don't want to return!' again declared Laura.

'It is your duty to return nevertheless, and at once, I inform you.'

'I don't want to!'

'Now, dear Laura, this is what I say: return with me and your cousin
James quietly, like a good and repentant girl, and nothing will be said.
Nobody knows what has happened as yet, and if we start at once, we shall
be home before it is light to-morrow morning. Come.'

'I am not obliged to come at your bidding, father, and I would rather
not!'

Now James, the cousin, during this dialogue might have been observed to
grow somewhat restless, and even impatient. More than once he had parted
his lips to speak, but second thoughts each time held him back. The
moment had come, however, when he could keep silence no longer.

'Come, madam!' he spoke out, 'this farce with your father has, in my
opinion, gone on long enough. Just make no more ado, and step downstairs
with us.'

She gave herself an intractable little twist, and did not reply.

'By the Lord Harry, Laura, I won't stand this!' he said angrily. 'Come,
get on your things before I come and compel you. There is a kind of
compulsion to which this talk is child's play. Come, madam - instantly, I
say!'

The old nobleman turned to his nephew and said mildly: 'Leave me to
insist, James. It doesn't become you. I can speak to her sharply
enough, if I choose.'

James, however, did not heed his uncle, and went on to the troublesome
young woman: 'You say you don't want to come, indeed! A pretty story to
tell me, that! Come, march out of the room at once, and leave that
hulking fellow for me to deal with afterward. Get on quickly - come!' and
he advanced toward her as if to pull her by the hand.

'Nay, nay,' expostulated Laura's father, much surprised at his nephew's
sudden demeanour. 'You take too much upon yourself. Leave her to me.'

'I won't leave her to you any longer!'

'You have no right, James, to address either me or her in this way; so
just hold your tongue. Come, my dear.'

'I have every right!' insisted James.

'How do you make that out?'

'I have the right of a husband.'

'Whose husband?'

'Hers.'

'What?'

'She's my wife.'

'James!'

'Well, to cut a long story short, I may say that she secretly married me,
in spite of your lordship's prohibition, about three months ago. And I
must add that, though she cooled down rather quickly, everything went on
smoothly enough between us for some time; in spite of the awkwardness of
meeting only by stealth. We were only waiting for a convenient moment to
break the news to you when this idle Adonis turned up, and after
poisoning her mind against me, brought her into this disgrace.'

Here the operatic luminary, who had sat in rather an abstracted and
nerveless attitude till the cousin made his declaration, fired up and
cried: 'I declare before Heaven that till this moment I never knew she
was a wife! I found her in her father's house an unhappy girl - unhappy,
as I believe, because of the loneliness and dreariness of that
establishment, and the want of society, and for nothing else whatever.
What this statement about her being your wife means I am quite at a loss
to understand. Are you indeed married to him, Laura?'

Laura nodded from within her tearful handkerchief. 'It was because of my
anomalous position in being privately married to him,' she sobbed, 'that
I was unhappy at home - and - and I didn't like him so well as I did at
first - and I wished I could get out of the mess I was in! And then I saw
you a few times, and when you said, "We'll run off," I thought I saw a
way out of it all, and then I agreed to come with you - oo-oo!'

'Well! well! well! And is this true?' murmured the bewildered old
nobleman, staring from James to Laura, and from Laura to James, as if he
fancied they might be figments of the imagination. 'Is this, then,
James, the secret of your kindness to your old uncle in helping him to
find his daughter? Good Heavens! What further depths of duplicity are
there left for a man to learn!'

'I have married her, Uncle Quantock, as I said,' answered James coolly.
'The deed is done, and can't be undone by talking here.'

'Where were you married?'

'At St. Mary's, Toneborough.'

'When?'

'On the 29th of September, during the time she was visiting there.'

'Who married you?'

'I don't know. One of the curates - we were quite strangers to the place.
So, instead of my assisting you to recover her, you may as well assist
me.'

'Never! never!' said Lord Quantock. 'Madam, and sir, I beg to tell you
that I wash my hands of the whole affair! If you are man and wife, as it
seems you are, get reconciled as best you may. I have no more to say or
do with either of you. I leave you, Laura, in the hands of your husband,
and much joy may you bring him; though the situation, I own, is not
encouraging.'

Saying this, the indignant speaker pushed back his chair against the
table with such force that the candlesticks rocked on their bases, and
left the room.

Laura's wet eyes roved from one of the young men to the other, who now
stood glaring face to face, and, being much frightened at their aspect,
slipped out of the room after her father. Him, however, she could hear
going out of the front door, and, not knowing where to take shelter, she
crept into the darkness of an adjoining bedroom, and there awaited events
with a palpitating heart.

Meanwhile the two men remaining in the sitting-room drew nearer to each
other, and the opera-singer broke the silence by saying, 'How could you
insult me in the way you did, calling me a fellow, and accusing me of
poisoning her mind toward you, when you knew very well I was as ignorant
of your relation to her as an unborn babe?'

'Oh yes, you were quite ignorant; I can believe that readily,' sneered
Laura's husband.

'I here call Heaven to witness that I never knew!'

'Recitativo - the rhythm excellent, and the tone well sustained. Is it
likely that any man could win the confidence of a young fool her age, and
not get that out of her? Preposterous! Tell it to the most improved new
pit-stalls.'

'Captain Northbrook, your insinuations are as despicable as your wretched
person!' cried the baritone, losing all patience. And springing forward
he slapped the captain in the face with the palm of his hand.

Northbrook flinched but slightly, and calmly using his handkerchief to
learn if his nose was bleeding, said, 'I quite expected this insult, so I
came prepared.' And he drew forth from a black valise which he carried
in his hand a small case of pistols.

The baritone started at the unexpected sight, but recovering from his
surprise said, 'Very well, as you will,' though perhaps his tone showed a
slight want of confidence.

'Now,' continued the husband, quite confidingly, 'we want no parade, no
nonsense, you know. Therefore we'll dispense with seconds?'

The signor slightly nodded.

'Do you know this part of the country well?' Cousin James went on, in the
same cool and still manner. 'If you don't, I do. Quite at the bottom of
the rocks out there, just beyond the stream which falls over them to the
shore, is a smooth sandy space, not so much shut in as to be out of the
moonlight; and the way down to it from this side is over steps cut in the
cliff; and we can find our way down without trouble. We - we two - will
find our way down; but only one of us will find his way up, you
understand?'

'Quite.'

'Then suppose we start; the sooner it is over the better. We can order
supper before we go out - supper for two; for though we are three at
present - '

'Three?'

'Yes; you and I and she - '

'Oh yes.'

' - We shall be only two by and by; so that, as I say, we will order
supper for two; for the lady and a gentleman. Whichever comes back alive
will tap at her door, and call her in to share the repast with him - she's
not off the premises. But we must not alarm her now; and above all
things we must not let the inn-people see us go out; it would look so odd
for two to go out, and only one come in. Ha! ha!'

'Ha! ha! exactly.'

'Are you ready?'

'Oh - quite.'

'Then I'll lead the way.'

He went softly to the door and downstairs, ordering supper to be ready in
an hour, as he had said; then making a feint of returning to the room
again, he beckoned to the singer, and together they slipped out of the
house by a side door.

* * * * *

The sky was now quite clear, and the wheelmarks of the brougham which had
borne away Laura's father, Lord Quantock, remained distinctly visible.
Soon the verge of the down was reached, the captain leading the way, and
the baritone following silently, casting furtive glances at his
companion, and beyond him at the scene ahead. In due course they arrived
at the chasm in the cliff which formed the waterfall. The outlook here
was wild and picturesque in the extreme, and fully justified the many
praises, paintings, and photographic views to which the spot had given
birth. What in summer was charmingly green and gray, was now rendered
weird and fantastic by the snow.

From their feet the cascade plunged downward almost vertically to a depth
of eighty or a hundred feet before finally losing itself in the sand, and
though the stream was but small, its impact upon jutting rocks in its
descent divided it into a hundred spirts and splashes that sent up a mist
into the upper air. A few marginal drippings had been frozen into
icicles, but the centre flowed on unimpeded.

The operatic artist looked down as he halted, but his thoughts were
plainly not of the beauty of the scene. His companion with the pistols
was immediately in front of him, and there was no handrail on the side of
the path toward the chasm. Obeying a quick impulse, he stretched out his
arm, and with a superhuman thrust sent Laura's husband reeling over. A
whirling human shape, diminishing downward in the moon's rays farther and
farther toward invisibility, a smack-smack upon the projecting ledges of
rock - at first louder and heavier than that of the brook, and then
scarcely to be distinguished from it - then a cessation, then the
splashing of the stream as before, and the accompanying murmur of the
sea, were all the incidents that disturbed the customary flow of the
little waterfall.

The singer waited in a fixed attitude for a few minutes, then turning, he
rapidly retraced his steps over the intervening upland toward the road,
and in less than a quarter of an hour was at the door of the hotel.
Slipping quietly in as the clock struck ten, he said to the landlord,
over the bar hatchway -

'The bill as soon as you can let me have it, including charges for the
supper that was ordered, though we cannot stay to eat it, I am sorry to
say.' He added with forced gaiety, 'The lady's father and cousin have
thought better of intercepting the marriage, and after quarrelling with
each other have gone home independently.'

'Well done, sir!' said the landlord, who still sided with this customer
in preference to those who had given trouble and barely paid for baiting
the horses. '"Love will find out the way!" as the saying is. Wish you
joy, sir!'

Signor Smithozzi went upstairs, and on entering the sitting-room found
that Laura had crept out from the dark adjoining chamber in his absence.
She looked up at him with eyes red from weeping, and with symptoms of
alarm.

'What is it? - where is he?' she said apprehensively.

'Captain Northbrook has gone back. He says he will have no more to do
with you.'

'And I am quite abandoned by them! - and they'll forget me, and nobody
care about me any more!' She began to cry afresh.

'But it is the luckiest thing that could have happened. All is just as
it was before they came disturbing us. But, Laura, you ought to have
told me about that private marriage, though it is all the same now; it
will be dissolved, of course. You are a wid - virtually a widow.'

'It is no use to reproach me for what is past. What am I to do now?'

'We go at once to Cliff-Martin. The horse has rested thoroughly these
last three hours, and he will have no difficulty in doing an additional
half-dozen miles. We shall be there before twelve, and there are late
taverns in the place, no doubt. There we'll sell both horse and carriage
to-morrow morning; and go by the coach to Downstaple. Once in the train
we are safe.'

'I agree to anything,' she said listlessly.

In about ten minutes the horse was put in, the bill paid, the lady's
dried wraps put round her, and the journey resumed.

When about a mile on their way, they saw a glimmering light in advance of
them. 'I wonder what that is?' said the baritone, whose manner had
latterly become nervous, every sound and sight causing him to turn his
head.

'It is only a turnpike,' said she. 'That light is the lamp kept burning
over the door.'

'Of course, of course, dearest. How stupid I am!'

On reaching the gate they perceived that a man on foot had approached it,
apparently by some more direct path than the roadway they pursued, and
was, at the moment they drew up, standing in conversation with the
gatekeeper.

'It is quite impossible that he could fall over the cliff by accident or
the will of God on such a light night as this,' the pedestrian was
saying. 'These two children I tell you of saw two men go along the path
toward the waterfall, and ten minutes later only one of 'em came back,
walking fast, like a man who wanted to get out of the way because he had
done something queer. There is no manner of doubt that he pushed the
other man over, and, mark me, it will soon cause a hue and cry for that
man.'

The candle shone in the face of the Signor and showed that there had
arisen upon it a film of ghastliness. Laura, glancing toward him for a


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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 15 of 16)