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 16 of 16)
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few moments observed it, till, the gatekeeper having mechanically swung
open the gate, her companion drove through, and they were soon again
enveloped in the white silence.

Her conductor had said to Laura, just before, that he meant to inquire
the way at this turnpike; but he had certainly not done so.

As soon as they had gone a little farther the omission, intentional or
not, began to cause them some trouble. Beyond the secluded district
which they now traversed ran the more frequented road, where progress
would be easy, the snow being probably already beaten there to some
extent by traffic; but they had not yet reached it, and having no one to
guide them their journey began to appear less feasible than it had done
before starting. When the little lane which they had entered ascended
another hill, and seemed to wind round in a direction contrary to the
expected route to Cliff-Martin, the question grew serious. Ever since
overhearing the conversation at the turnpike, Laura had maintained a
perfect silence, and had even shrunk somewhat away from the side of her
lover.

'Why don't you talk, Laura,' he said with forced buoyancy, 'and suggest
the way we should go?'

'Oh yes, I will,' she responded, a curious fearfulness being audible in
her voice.

After this she uttered a few occasional sentences which seemed to
persuade him that she suspected nothing. At last he drew rein, and the
weary horse stood still.

'We are in a fix,' he said.

She answered eagerly: 'I'll hold the reins while you run forward to the
top of the ridge, and see if the road takes a favourable turn beyond. It
would give the horse a few minutes' rest, and if you find out no change
in the direction, we will retrace this lane, and take the other turning.'

The expedient seemed a good one in the circumstances, especially when
recommended by the singular eagerness of her voice; and placing the reins
in her hands - a quite unnecessary precaution, considering the state of
their hack - he stepped out and went forward through the snow till she
could see no more of him.

No sooner was he gone than Laura, with a rapidity which contrasted
strangely with her previous stillness, made fast the reins to the corner
of the phaeton, and slipping out on the opposite side, ran back with all
her might down the hill, till, coming to an opening in the fence, she
scrambled through it, and plunged into the copse which bordered this
portion of the lane. Here she stood in hiding under one of the large
bushes, clinging so closely to its umbrage as to seem but a portion of
its mass, and listening intently for the faintest sound of pursuit. But
nothing disturbed the stillness save the occasional slipping of gathered
snow from the boughs, or the rustle of some wild animal over the crisp
flake-bespattered herbage. At length, apparently convinced that her
former companion was either unable to find her, or not anxious to do so,
in the present strange state of affairs, she crept out from the bushes,
and in less than an hour found herself again approaching the door of the
Prospect Hotel.

As she drew near, Laura could see that, far from being wrapped in
darkness, as she might have expected, there were ample signs that all the
tenants were on the alert, lights moving about the open space in front.
Satisfaction was expressed in her face when she discerned that no
reappearance of her baritone and his pony-carriage was causing this
sensation; but it speedily gave way to grief and dismay when she saw by
the lights the form of a man borne on a stretcher by two others into the
porch of the hotel.

'I have caused all this,' she murmured between her quivering lips. 'He
has murdered him!' Running forward to the door, she hastily asked of the
first person she met if the man on the stretcher was dead.

'No, miss,' said the labourer addressed, eyeing her up and down as an
unexpected apparition. 'He is still alive, they say, but not sensible.
He either fell or was pushed over the waterfall; 'tis thoughted he was
pushed. He is the gentleman who came here just now with the old lord,
and went out afterward (as is thoughted) with a stranger who had come a
little earlier. Anyhow, that's as I had it.'

Laura entered the house, and acknowledging without the least reserve that
she was the injured man's wife, had soon installed herself as head nurse
by the bed on which he lay. When the two surgeons who had been sent for
arrived, she learned from them that his wounds were so severe as to leave
but a slender hope of recovery, it being little short of miraculous that
he was not killed on the spot, which his enemy had evidently reckoned to
be the case. She knew who that enemy was, and shuddered.

Laura watched all night, but her husband knew nothing of her presence.
During the next day he slightly recognized her, and in the evening was
able to speak. He informed the surgeons that, as was surmised, he had
been pushed over the cascade by Signor Smithozzi; but he communicated
nothing to her who nursed him, not even replying to her remarks; he
nodded courteously at any act of attention she rendered, and that was
all.

In a day or two it was declared that everything favoured his recovery,
notwithstanding the severity of his injuries. Full search was made for
Smithozzi, but as yet there was no intelligence of his whereabouts,
though the repentant Laura communicated all she knew. As far as could be
judged, he had come back to the carriage after searching out the way, and
finding the young lady missing, had looked about for her till he was
tired; then had driven on to Cliff-Martin, sold the horse and carriage
next morning, and disappeared, probably by one of the departing coaches
which ran thence to the nearest station, the only difference from his
original programme being that he had gone alone.

* * * * *

During the days and weeks of that long and tedious recovery, Laura
watched by her husband's bedside with a zeal and assiduity which would
have considerably extenuated any fault save one of such magnitude as
hers. That her husband did not forgive her was soon obvious. Nothing
that she could do in the way of smoothing pillows, easing his position,
shifting bandages, or administering draughts, could win from him more
than a few measured words of thankfulness, such as he would probably have
uttered to any other woman on earth who had performed these particular
services for him.

'Dear, dear James,' she said one day, bending her face upon the bed in an
excess of emotion. 'How you have suffered! It has been too cruel. I am
more glad you are getting better than I can say. I have prayed for
it - and I am sorry for what I have done; I am innocent of the worst,
and - I hope you will not think me so very bad, James!'

'Oh no. On the contrary, I shall think you very good - as a nurse,' he
answered, the caustic severity of his tone being apparent through its
weakness.

Laura let fall two or three silent tears, and said no more that day.

Somehow or other Signor Smithozzi seemed to be making good his escape. It
transpired that he had not taken a passage in either of the suspected
coaches, though he had certainly got out of the county; altogether, the
chance of finding him was problematical.

Not only did Captain Northbrook survive his injuries, but it soon
appeared that in the course of a few weeks he would find himself little
if any the worse for the catastrophe. It could also be seen that Laura,
while secretly hoping for her husband's forgiveness for a piece of folly
of which she saw the enormity more clearly every day, was in great doubt
as to what her future relations with him would be. Moreover, to add to
the complication, whilst she, as a runaway wife, was unforgiven by her
husband, she and her husband, as a runaway couple, were unforgiven by her
father, who had never once communicated with either of them since his
departure from the inn. But her immediate anxiety was to win the pardon
of her husband, who possibly might be bearing in mind, as he lay upon his
couch, the familiar words of Brabantio, 'She has deceived her father, and
may thee.'

Matters went on thus till Captain Northbrook was able to walk about. He
then removed with his wife to quiet apartments on the south coast, and
here his recovery was rapid. Walking up the cliffs one day, supporting
him by her arm as usual, she said to him, simply, 'James, if I go on as I
am going now, and always attend to your smallest want, and never think of
anything but devotion to you, will you - try to like me a little?'

'It is a thing I must carefully consider,' he said, with the same gloomy
dryness which characterized all his words to her now. 'When I have
considered, I will tell you.'

He did not tell her that evening, though she lingered long at her routine
work of making his bedroom comfortable, putting the light so that it
would not shine into his eyes, seeing him fall asleep, and then retiring
noiselessly to her own chamber. When they met in the morning at
breakfast, and she had asked him as usual how he had passed the night,
she added timidly, in the silence which followed his reply, 'Have you
considered?'

'No, I have not considered sufficiently to give you an answer.'

Laura sighed, but to no purpose; and the day wore on with intense
heaviness to her, and the customary modicum of strength gained to him.

The next morning she put the same question, and looked up despairingly in
his face, as though her whole life hung upon his reply.

'Yes, I have considered,' he said.

'Ah!'

'We must part.'

'O James!'

'I cannot forgive you; no man would. Enough is settled upon you to keep
you in comfort, whatever your father may do. I shall sell out, and
disappear from this hemisphere.'

'You have absolutely decided?' she asked miserably. 'I have nobody now
to c-c-care for - '

'I have absolutely decided,' he shortly returned. 'We had better part
here. You will go back to your father. There is no reason why I should
accompany you, since my presence would only stand in the way of the
forgiveness he will probably grant you if you appear before him alone. We
will say farewell to each other in three days from this time. I have
calculated on being ready to go on that day.'

Bowed down with trouble, she withdrew to her room, and the three days
were passed by her husband in writing letters and attending to other
business-matters, saying hardly a word to her the while. The morning of
departure came; but before the horses had been put in to take the severed
twain in different directions, out of sight of each other, possibly for
ever, the postman arrived with the morning letters.

There was one for the captain; none for her - there were never any for
her. However, on this occasion something was enclosed for her in his,
which he handed her. She read it and looked up helpless.

'My dear father - is dead!' she said. In a few moments she added, in a
whisper, 'I must go to the Manor to bury him . . . Will you go with me,
James?'

He musingly looked out of the window. 'I suppose it is an awkward and
melancholy undertaking for a woman alone,' he said coldly. 'Well,
well - my poor uncle! - Yes, I'll go with you, and see you through the
business.'

So they went off together instead of asunder, as planned. It is
unnecessary to record the details of the journey, or of the sad week
which followed it at her father's house. Lord Quantock's seat was a fine
old mansion standing in its own park, and there were plenty of
opportunities for husband and wife either to avoid each other, or to get
reconciled if they were so minded, which one of them was at least.
Captain Northbrook was not present at the reading of the will. She came
to him afterward, and found him packing up his papers, intending to start
next morning, now that he had seen her through the turmoil occasioned by
her father's death.

'He has left me everything that he could!' she said to her husband.
'James, will you forgive me now, and stay?'

'I cannot stay.'

'Why not?'

'I cannot stay,' he repeated.

'But why?'

'I don't like you.'

He acted up to his word. When she came downstairs the next morning she
was told that he had gone.

* * * * *

Laura bore her double bereavement as best she could. The vast mansion in
which she had hitherto lived, with all its historic contents, had gone to
her father's successor in the title; but her own was no unhandsome one.
Around lay the undulating park, studded with trees a dozen times her own
age; beyond it, the wood; beyond the wood, the farms. All this fair and
quiet scene was hers. She nevertheless remained a lonely, repentant,
depressed being, who would have given the greater part of everything she
possessed to ensure the presence and affection of that husband whose very
austerity and phlegm - qualities that had formerly led to the alienation
between them - seemed now to be adorable features in his character.

She hoped and hoped again, but all to no purpose. Captain Northbrook did
not alter his mind and return. He was quite a different sort of man from
one who altered his mind; that she was at last despairingly forced to
admit. And then she left off hoping, and settled down to a mechanical
routine of existence which in some measure dulled her grief; but at the
expense of all her natural animation and the sprightly wilfulness which
had once charmed those who knew her, though it was perhaps all the while
a factor in the production of her unhappiness.

To say that her beauty quite departed as the years rolled on would be to
overstate the truth. Time is not a merciful master, as we all know, and
he was not likely to act exceptionally in the case of a woman who had
mental troubles to bear in addition to the ordinary weight of years. Be
this as it may, eleven other winters came and went, and Laura Northbrook
remained the lonely mistress of house and lands without once hearing of
her husband. Every probability seemed to favour the assumption that he
had died in some foreign land; and offers for her hand were not few as
the probability verged on certainty with the long lapse of time. But the
idea of remarriage seemed never to have entered her head for a moment.
Whether she continued to hope even now for his return could not be
distinctly ascertained; at all events she lived a life unmodified in the
slightest degree from that of the first six months of his absence.

This twelfth year of Laura's loneliness, and the thirtieth of her life
drew on apace, and the season approached that had seen the unhappy
adventure for which she so long had suffered. Christmas promised to be
rather wet than cold, and the trees on the outskirts of Laura's estate
dripped monotonously from day to day upon the turnpike-road which
bordered them. On an afternoon in this week between three and four
o'clock a hired fly might have been seen driving along the highway at
this point, and on reaching the top of the hill it stopped. A gentleman
of middle age alighted from the vehicle.

'You need drive no farther,' he said to the coachman. 'The rain seems to
have nearly ceased. I'll stroll a little way, and return on foot to the
inn by dinner-time.'

The flyman touched his hat, turned the horse, and drove back as directed.
When he was out of sight, the gentleman walked on, but he had not gone
far before the rain again came down pitilessly, though of this the
pedestrian took little heed, going leisurely onward till he reached
Laura's park gate, which he passed through. The clouds were thick and
the days were short, so that by the time he stood in front of the mansion
it was dark. In addition to this his appearance, which on alighting from
the carriage had been untarnished, partook now of the character of a
drenched wayfarer not too well blessed with this world's goods. He
halted for no more than a moment at the front entrance, and going round
to the servants' quarter, as if he had a preconceived purpose in so
doing, there rang the bell. When a page came to him he inquired if they
would kindly allow him to dry himself by the kitchen fire.

The page retired, and after a murmured colloquy returned with the cook,
who informed the wet and muddy man that though it was not her custom to
admit strangers, she should have no particular objection to his drying
himself; the night being so damp and gloomy. Therefore the wayfarer
entered and sat down by the fire.

'The owner of this house is a very rich gentleman, no doubt?' he asked,
as he watched the meat turning on the spit.

''Tis not a gentleman, but a lady,' said the cook.

'A widow, I presume?'

'A sort of widow. Poor soul, her husband is gone abroad, and has never
been heard of for many years.'

'She sees plenty of company, no doubt, to make up for his absence?'

'No, indeed - hardly a soul. Service here is as bad as being in a
nunnery.'

In short, the wayfarer, who had at first been so coldly received,
contrived by his frank and engaging manner to draw the ladies of the
kitchen into a most confidential conversation, in which Laura's history
was minutely detailed, from the day of her husband's departure to the
present. The salient feature in all their discourse was her unflagging
devotion to his memory.

Having apparently learned all that he wanted to know - among other things
that she was at this moment, as always, alone - the traveller said he was
quite dry; and thanking the servants for their kindness, departed as he
had come. On emerging into the darkness he did not, however, go down the
avenue by which he had arrived. He simply walked round to the front
door. There he rang, and the door was opened to him by a man-servant
whom he had not seen during his sojourn at the other end of the house.

In answer to the servant's inquiry for his name, he said ceremoniously,
'Will you tell The Honourable Mrs. Northbrook that the man she nursed
many years ago, after a frightful accident, has called to thank her?'

The footman retreated, and it was rather a long time before any further
signs of attention were apparent. Then he was shown into the drawing-
room, and the door closed behind him.

On the couch was Laura, trembling and pale. She parted her lips and held
out her hands to him, but could not speak. But he did not require
speech, and in a moment they were in each other's arms.

Strange news circulated through that mansion and the neighbouring town on
the next and following days. But the world has a way of getting used to
things, and the intelligence of the return of The Honourable Mrs.
Northbrook's long-absent husband was soon received with comparative calm.

A few days more brought Christmas, and the forlorn home of Laura
Northbrook blazed from basement to attic with light and cheerfulness. Not
that the house was overcrowded with visitors, but many were present, and
the apathy of a dozen years came at length to an end. The animation
which set in thus at the close of the old year did not diminish on the
arrival of the new; and by the time its twelve months had likewise run
the course of its predecessors, a son had been added to the dwindled line
of the Northbrook family.

* * * * *

At the conclusion of this narrative the Spark was thanked, with a manner
of some surprise, for nobody had credited him with a taste for
tale-telling. Though it had been resolved that this story should be the
last, a few of the weather-bound listeners were for sitting on into the
small hours over their pipes and glasses, and raking up yet more episodes
of family history. But the majority murmured reasons for soon getting to
their lodgings.

It was quite dark without, except in the immediate neighbourhood of the
feeble street-lamps, and before a few shop-windows which had been hardily
kept open in spite of the obvious unlikelihood of any chance customer
traversing the muddy thoroughfares at that hour.

By one, by two, and by three the benighted members of the Field-Club rose
from their seats, shook hands, made appointments, and dropped away to
their respective quarters, free or hired, hoping for a fair morrow. It
would probably be not until the next summer meeting, months away in the
future, that the easy intercourse which now existed between them all
would repeat itself. The crimson maltster, for instance, knew that on
the following market-day his friends the President, the Rural Dean, and
the bookworm would pass him in the street, if they met him, with the
barest nod of civility, the President and the Colonel for social reasons,
the bookworm for intellectual reasons, and the Rural Dean for moral ones,
the latter being a staunch teetotaller, dead against John Barleycorn. The
sentimental member knew that when, on his rambles, he met his friend the
bookworm with a pocket-copy of something or other under his nose, the
latter would not love his companionship as he had done to-day; and the
President, the aristocrat, and the farmer knew that affairs political,
sporting, domestic, or agricultural would exclude for a long time all
rumination on the characters of dames gone to dust for scores of years,
however beautiful and noble they may have been in their day.

The last member at length departed, the attendant at the museum lowered
the fire, the curator locked up the rooms, and soon there was only a
single pirouetting flame on the top of a single coal to make the bones of
the ichthyosaurus seem to leap, the stuffed birds to wink, and to draw a
smile from the varnished skulls of Vespasian's soldiery.



***


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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 16 of 16)