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 3 of 16)
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least have time to write to him if so minded. The returned traveller
much desired to obtain the Squire's assent, as well as his wife's, to the
proposed visit to his bride, that nothing might seem harsh or forced in
his method of taking his position as one of the family. But though he
anticipated some sort of objection from his father-in-law, in consequence
of Mrs. Dornell's warning, he was surprised at the announcement of the
Squire in person.

Stephen Reynard formed the completest of possible contrasts to Dornell as
they stood confronting each other in the best parlour of the Bristol
tavern. The Squire, hot-tempered, gouty, impulsive, generous, reckless;
the younger man, pale, tall, sedate, self-possessed - a man of the world,
fully bearing out at least one couplet in his epitaph, still extant in
King's-Hintock church, which places in the inventory of his good
qualities

'Engaging Manners, cultivated Mind,
Adorn'd by Letters, and in Courts refin'd.'

He was at this time about five-and-thirty, though careful living and an
even, unemotional temperament caused him to look much younger than his
years.

Squire Dornell plunged into his errand without much ceremony or preface.

'I am your humble servant, sir,' he said. 'I have read your letter writ
to my wife and myself, and considered that the best way to answer it
would be to do so in person.'

'I am vastly honoured by your visit, sir,' said Mr. Stephen Reynard,
bowing.

'Well, what's done can't be undone,' said Dornell, 'though it was mighty
early, and was no doing of mine. She's your wife; and there's an end
on't. But in brief, sir, she's too young for you to claim yet; we
mustn't reckon by years; we must reckon by nature. She's still a girl;
'tis onpolite of 'ee to come yet; next year will be full soon enough for
you to take her to you.'

Now, courteous as Reynard could be, he was a little obstinate when his
resolution had once been formed. She had been promised him by her
eighteenth birthday at latest - sooner if she were in robust health. Her
mother had fixed the time on her own judgment, without a word of
interference on his part. He had been hanging about foreign courts till
he was weary. Betty was now as woman, if she would ever be one, and
there was not, in his mind, the shadow of an excuse for putting him off
longer. Therefore, fortified as he was by the support of her mother, he
blandly but firmly told the Squire that he had been willing to waive his
rights, out of deference to her parents, to any reasonable extent, but
must now, in justice to himself and her insist on maintaining them. He
therefore, since she had not come to meet him, should proceed to King's-
Hintock in a few days to fetch her.

This announcement, in spite of the urbanity with which it was delivered,
set Dornell in a passion.

'Oh dammy, sir; you talk about rights, you do, after stealing her away, a
mere child, against my will and knowledge! If we'd begged and prayed 'ee
to take her, you could say no more.'

'Upon my honour, your charge is quite baseless, sir,' said his son-in-
law. 'You must know by this time - or if you do not, it has been a
monstrous cruel injustice to me that I should have been allowed to remain
in your mind with such a stain upon my character - you must know that I
used no seductiveness or temptation of any kind. Her mother assented;
she assented. I took them at their word. That you was really opposed to
the marriage was not known to me till afterwards.'

Dornell professed to believe not a word of it. 'You sha'n't have her
till she's dree sixes full - no maid ought to be married till she's dree
sixes! - and my daughter sha'n't be treated out of nater!' So he stormed
on till Tupcombe, who had been alarmedly listening in the next room,
entered suddenly, declaring to Reynard that his master's life was in
danger if the interview were prolonged, he being subject to apoplectic
strokes at these crises. Reynard immediately said that he would be the
last to wish to injure Squire Dornell, and left the room, and as soon as
the Squire had recovered breath and equanimity, he went out of the inn,
leaning on the arm of Tupcombe.

Tupcombe was for sleeping in Bristol that night, but Dornell, whose
energy seemed as invincible as it was sudden, insisted upon mounting and
getting back as far as Falls-Park, to continue the journey to
King's-Hintock on the following day. At five they started, and took the
southern road toward the Mendip Hills. The evening was dry and windy,
and, excepting that the sun did not shine, strongly reminded Tupcombe of
the evening of that March month, nearly five years earlier, when news had
been brought to King's-Hintock Court of the child Betty's marriage in
London - news which had produced upon Dornell such a marked effect for the
worse ever since, and indirectly upon the household of which he was the
head. Before that time the winters were lively at Falls-Park, as well as
at King's-Hintock, although the Squire had ceased to make it his regular
residence. Hunting-guests and shooting-guests came and went, and open
house was kept. Tupcombe disliked the clever courtier who had put a stop
to this by taking away from the Squire the only treasure he valued.

It grew darker with their progress along the lanes, and Tupcombe
discovered from Mr. Dornell's manner of riding that his strength was
giving way; and spurring his own horse close alongside, he asked him how
he felt.

'Oh, bad; damn bad, Tupcombe! I can hardly keep my seat. I shall never
be any better, I fear! Have we passed Three-Man-Gibbet yet?'

'Not yet by a long ways, sir.'

'I wish we had. I can hardly hold on.' The Squire could not repress a
groan now and then, and Tupcombe knew he was in great pain. 'I wish I
was underground - that's the place for such fools as I! I'd gladly be
there if it were not for Mistress Betty. He's coming on to
King's-Hintock to-morrow - he won't put it off any longer; he'll set out
and reach there to-morrow night, without stopping at Falls; and he'll
take her unawares, and I want to be there before him.'

'I hope you may be well enough to do it, sir. But really - '

'I _must_, Tupcombe! You don't know what my trouble is; it is not so
much that she is married to this man without my agreeing - for, after all,
there's nothing to say against him, so far as I know; but that she don't
take to him at all, seems to fear him - in fact, cares nothing about him;
and if he comes forcing himself into the house upon her, why, 'twill be
rank cruelty. Would to the Lord something would happen to prevent him!'

How they reached home that night Tupcombe hardly knew. The Squire was in
such pain that he was obliged to recline upon his horse, and Tupcombe was
afraid every moment lest he would fall into the road. But they did reach
home at last, and Mr. Dornell was instantly assisted to bed.

* * * * *

Next morning it was obvious that he could not possibly go to
King's-Hintock for several days at least, and there on the bed he lay,
cursing his inability to proceed on an errand so personal and so delicate
that no emissary could perform it. What he wished to do was to ascertain
from Betty's own lips if her aversion to Reynard was so strong that his
presence would be positively distasteful to her. Were that the case, he
would have borne her away bodily on the saddle behind him.

But all that was hindered now, and he repeated a hundred times in
Tupcombe's hearing, and in that of the nurse and other servants, 'I wish
to God something would happen to him!'

This sentiment, reiterated by the Squire as he tossed in the agony
induced by the powerful drugs of the day before, entered sharply into the
soul of Tupcombe and of all who were attached to the house of Dornell, as
distinct from the house of his wife at King's-Hintock. Tupcombe, who was
an excitable man, was hardly less disquieted by the thought of Reynard's
return than the Squire himself was. As the week drew on, and the
afternoon advanced at which Reynard would in all probability be passing
near Falls on his way to the Court, the Squire's feelings became acuter,
and the responsive Tupcombe could hardly bear to come near him. Having
left him in the hands of the doctor, the former went out upon the lawn,
for he could hardly breathe in the contagion of excitement caught from
the employer who had virtually made him his confidant. He had lived with
the Dornells from his boyhood, had been born under the shadow of their
walls; his whole life was annexed and welded to the life of the family in
a degree which has no counterpart in these latter days.

He was summoned indoors, and learnt that it had been decided to send for
Mrs. Dornell: her husband was in great danger. There were two or three
who could have acted as messenger, but Dornell wished Tupcombe to go, the
reason showing itself when, Tupcombe being ready to start, Squire Dornell
summoned him to his chamber and leaned down so that he could whisper in
his ear:

'Put Peggy along smart, Tupcombe, and get there before him, you
know - before him. This is the day he fixed. He has not passed Falls
cross-roads yet. If you can do that you will be able to get Betty to
come - d'ye see? - after her mother has started; she'll have a reason for
not waiting for him. Bring her by the lower road - he'll go by the upper.
Your business is to make 'em miss each other - d'ye see? - but that's a
thing I couldn't write down.'

Five minutes after, Tupcombe was astride the horse and on his way - the
way he had followed so many times since his master, a florid young
countryman, had first gone wooing to King's-Hintock Court. As soon as he
had crossed the hills in the immediate neighbourhood of the manor, the
road lay over a plain, where it ran in long straight stretches for
several miles. In the best of times, when all had been gay in the united
houses, that part of the road had seemed tedious. It was gloomy in the
extreme now that he pursued it, at night and alone, on such an errand.

He rode and brooded. If the Squire were to die, he, Tupcombe, would be
alone in the world and friendless, for he was no favourite with Mrs.
Dornell; and to find himself baffled, after all, in what he had set his
mind on, would probably kill the Squire. Thinking thus, Tupcombe stopped
his horse every now and then, and listened for the coming husband. The
time was drawing on to the moment when Reynard might be expected to pass
along this very route. He had watched the road well during the
afternoon, and had inquired of the tavern-keepers as he came up to each,
and he was convinced that the premature descent of the stranger-husband
upon his young mistress had not been made by this highway as yet.

Besides the girl's mother, Tupcombe was the only member of the household
who suspected Betty's tender feelings towards young Phelipson, so
unhappily generated on her return from school; and he could therefore
imagine, even better than her fond father, what would be her emotions on
the sudden announcement of Reynard's advent that evening at
King's-Hintock Court.

So he rode and rode, desponding and hopeful by turns. He felt assured
that, unless in the unfortunate event of the almost immediate arrival of
her son-in law at his own heels, Mrs. Dornell would not be able to hinder
Betty's departure for her father's bedside.

It was about nine o'clock that, having put twenty miles of country behind
him, he turned in at the lodge-gate nearest to Ivell and King's-Hintock
village, and pursued the long north drive - itself much like a turnpike
road - which led thence through the park to the Court. Though there were
so many trees in King's-Hintock park, few bordered the carriage roadway;
he could see it stretching ahead in the pale night light like an unrolled
deal shaving. Presently the irregular frontage of the house came in
view, of great extent, but low, except where it rose into the outlines of
a broad square tower.

As Tupcombe approached he rode aside upon the grass, to make sure, if
possible, that he was the first comer, before letting his presence be
known. The Court was dark and sleepy, in no respect as if a bridegroom
were about to arrive.

While pausing he distinctly heard the tread of a horse upon the track
behind him, and for a moment despaired of arriving in time: here, surely,
was Reynard! Pulling up closer to the densest tree at hand he waited,
and found he had retreated nothing too soon, for the second rider avoided
the gravel also, and passed quite close to him. In the profile he
recognized young Phelipson.

Before Tupcombe could think what to do, Phelipson had gone on; but not to
the door of the house. Swerving to the left, he passed round to the east
angle, where, as Tupcombe knew, were situated Betty's apartments.
Dismounting, he left the horse tethered to a hanging bough, and walked on
to the house.

Suddenly his eye caught sight of an object which explained the position
immediately. It was a ladder stretching from beneath the trees, which
there came pretty close to the house, up to a first-floor window - one
which lighted Miss Betty's rooms. Yes, it was Betty's chamber; he knew
every room in the house well.

The young horseman who had passed him, having evidently left his steed
somewhere under the trees also, was perceptible at the top of the ladder,
immediately outside Betty's window. While Tupcombe watched, a cloaked
female figure stepped timidly over the sill, and the two cautiously
descended, one before the other, the young man's arms enclosing the young
woman between his grasp of the ladder, so that she could not fall. As
soon as they reached the bottom, young Phelipson quickly removed the
ladder and hid it under the bushes. The pair disappeared; till, in a few
minutes, Tupcombe could discern a horse emerging from a remoter part of
the umbrage. The horse carried double, the girl being on a pillion
behind her lover.

Tupcombe hardly knew what to do or think; yet, though this was not
exactly the kind of flight that had been intended, she had certainly
escaped. He went back to his own animal, and rode round to the servants'
door, where he delivered the letter for Mrs. Dornell. To leave a verbal
message for Betty was now impossible.

The Court servants desired him to stay over the night, but he would not
do so, desiring to get back to the Squire as soon as possible and tell
what he had seen. Whether he ought not to have intercepted the young
people, and carried off Betty himself to her father, he did not know.
However, it was too late to think of that now, and without wetting his
lips or swallowing a crumb, Tupcombe turned his back upon King's-Hintock
Court.

It was not till he had advanced a considerable distance on his way
homeward that, halting under the lantern of a roadside-inn while the
horse was watered, there came a traveller from the opposite direction in
a hired coach; the lantern lit the stranger's face as he passed along and
dropped into the shade. Tupcombe exulted for the moment, though he could
hardly have justified his exultation. The belated traveller was Reynard;
and another had stepped in before him.

You may now be willing to know of the fortunes of Miss Betty. Left much
to herself through the intervening days, she had ample time to brood over
her desperate attempt at the stratagem of infection - thwarted,
apparently, by her mother's promptitude. In what other way to gain time
she could not think. Thus drew on the day and the hour of the evening on
which her husband was expected to announce himself.

At some period after dark, when she could not tell, a tap at the window,
twice and thrice repeated, became audible. It caused her to start up,
for the only visitant in her mind was the one whose advances she had so
feared as to risk health and life to repel them. She crept to the
window, and heard a whisper without.

'It is I - Charley,' said the voice.

Betty's face fired with excitement. She had latterly begun to doubt her
admirer's staunchness, fancying his love to be going off in mere
attentions which neither committed him nor herself very deeply. She
opened the window, saying in a joyous whisper, 'Oh Charley; I thought you
had deserted me quite!'

He assured her he had not done that, and that he had a horse in waiting,
if she would ride off with him. 'You must come quickly,' he said; 'for
Reynard's on the way!'

To throw a cloak round herself was the work of a moment, and assuring
herself that her door was locked against a surprise, she climbed over the
window-sill and descended with him as we have seen.

Her mother meanwhile, having received Tupcombe's note, found the news of
her husband's illness so serious, as to displace her thoughts of the
coming son-in-law, and she hastened to tell her daughter of the Squire's
dangerous condition, thinking it might be desirable to take her to her
father's bedside. On trying the door of the girl's room, she found it
still locked. Mrs. Dornell called, but there was no answer. Full of
misgivings, she privately fetched the old house-steward and bade him
burst open the door - an order by no means easy to execute, the joinery of
the Court being massively constructed. However, the lock sprang open at
last, and she entered Betty's chamber only to find the window unfastened
and the bird flown.

For a moment Mrs. Dornell was staggered. Then it occurred to her that
Betty might have privately obtained from Tupcombe the news of her
father's serious illness, and, fearing she might be kept back to meet her
husband, have gone off with that obstinate and biassed servitor to Falls-
Park. The more she thought it over the more probable did the supposition
appear; and binding her own head-man to secrecy as to Betty's movements,
whether as she conjectured, or otherwise, Mrs. Dornell herself prepared
to set out.

She had no suspicion how seriously her husband's malady had been
aggravated by his ride to Bristol, and thought more of Betty's affairs
than of her own. That Betty's husband should arrive by some other road
to-night, and find neither wife nor mother-in-law to receive him, and no
explanation of their absence, was possible; but never forgetting chances,
Mrs. Dornell as she journeyed kept her eyes fixed upon the highway on the
off-side, where, before she had reached the town of Ivell, the hired
coach containing Stephen Reynard flashed into the lamplight of her own
carriage.

Mrs. Dornell's coachman pulled up, in obedience to a direction she had
given him at starting; the other coach was hailed, a few words passed,
and Reynard alighted and came to Mrs. Dornell's carriage-window.

'Come inside,' says she. 'I want to speak privately to you. Why are you
so late?'

'One hindrance and another,' says he. 'I meant to be at the Court by
eight at latest. My gratitude for your letter. I hope - '

'You must not try to see Betty yet,' said she. 'There be far other and
newer reasons against your seeing her now than there were when I wrote.'

The circumstances were such that Mrs. Dornell could not possibly conceal
them entirely; nothing short of knowing some of the facts would prevent
his blindly acting in a manner which might be fatal to the future.
Moreover, there are times when deeper intriguers than Mrs. Dornell feel
that they must let out a few truths, if only in self-indulgence. So she
told so much of recent surprises as that Betty's heart had been attracted
by another image than his, and that his insisting on visiting her now
might drive the girl to desperation. 'Betty has, in fact, rushed off to
her father to avoid you,' she said. 'But if you wait she will soon
forget this young man, and you will have nothing to fear.'

As a woman and a mother she could go no further, and Betty's desperate
attempt to infect herself the week before as a means of repelling him,
together with the alarming possibility that, after all, she had not gone
to her father but to her lover, was not revealed.

'Well,' sighed the diplomatist, in a tone unexpectedly quiet, 'such
things have been known before. After all, she may prefer me to him some
day, when she reflects how very differently I might have acted than I am
going to act towards her. But I'll say no more about that now. I can
have a bed at your house for to-night?'

'To-night, certainly. And you leave to-morrow morning early?' She spoke
anxiously, for on no account did she wish him to make further
discoveries. 'My husband is so seriously ill,' she continued, 'that my
absence and Betty's on your arrival is naturally accounted for.'

He promised to leave early, and to write to her soon. 'And when I think
the time is ripe,' he said, 'I'll write to her. I may have something to
tell her that will bring her to graciousness.'

It was about one o'clock in the morning when Mrs. Dornell reached Falls-
Park. A double blow awaited her there. Betty had not arrived; her
flight had been elsewhither; and her stricken mother divined with whom.
She ascended to the bedside of her husband, where to her concern she
found that the physician had given up all hope. The Squire was sinking,
and his extreme weakness had almost changed his character, except in the
particular that his old obstinacy sustained him in a refusal to see a
clergyman. He shed tears at the least word, and sobbed at the sight of
his wife. He asked for Betty, and it was with a heavy heart that Mrs.
Dornell told him that the girl had not accompanied her.

'He is not keeping her away?'

'No, no. He is going back - he is not coming to her for some time.'

'Then what is detaining her - cruel, neglectful maid!'

'No, no, Thomas; she is - She could not come.'

'How's that?'

Somehow the solemnity of these last moments of his gave him inquisitorial
power, and the too cold wife could not conceal from him the flight which
had taken place from King's-Hintock that night.

To her amazement, the effect upon him was electrical.

'What - Betty - a trump after all? Hurrah! She's her father's own maid!
She's game! She knew he was her father's own choice! She vowed that my
man should win! Well done, Bet! - haw! haw! Hurrah!'

He had raised himself in bed by starts as he spoke, and now fell back
exhausted. He never uttered another word, and died before the dawn.
People said there had not been such an ungenteel death in a good county
family for years.

* * * * *

Now I will go back to the time of Betty's riding off on the pillion
behind her lover. They left the park by an obscure gate to the east, and
presently found themselves in the lonely and solitary length of the old
Roman road now called Long-Ash Lane.

By this time they were rather alarmed at their own performance, for they
were both young and inexperienced. Hence they proceeded almost in
silence till they came to a mean roadside inn which was not yet closed;
when Betty, who had held on to him with much misgiving all this while,
felt dreadfully unwell, and said she thought she would like to get down.

They accordingly dismounted from the jaded animal that had brought them,
and were shown into a small dark parlour, where they stood side by side
awkwardly, like the fugitives they were. A light was brought, and when
they were left alone Betty threw off the cloak which had enveloped her.
No sooner did young Phelipson see her face than he uttered an alarmed
exclamation.

'Why, Lord, Lord, you are sickening for the small-pox!' he cried.

'Oh - I forgot!' faltered Betty. And then she informed him that, on
hearing of her husband's approach the week before, in a desperate attempt
to keep him from her side, she had tried to imbibe the infection - an act
which till this moment she had supposed to have been ineffectual,
imagining her feverishness to be the result of her excitement.

The effect of this discovery upon young Phelipson was overwhelming.
Better-seasoned men than he would not have been proof against it, and he
was only a little over her own age. 'And you've been holding on to me!'
he said. 'And suppose you get worse, and we both have it, what shall we
do? Won't you be a fright in a month or two, poor, poor Betty!'

In his horror he attempted to laugh, but the laugh ended in a weakly
giggle. She was more woman than girl by this time, and realized his
feeling.

'What - in trying to keep off him, I keep off you?' she said miserably.
'Do you hate me because I am going to be ugly and ill?'

'Oh - no, no!' he said soothingly. 'But I - I am thinking if it is quite
right for us to do this. You see, dear Betty, if you was not married it
would be different. You are not in honour married to him we've often


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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 3 of 16)