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 4 of 16)
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said; still you are his by law, and you can't be mine whilst he's alive.
And with this terrible sickness coming on, perhaps you had better let me
take you back, and - climb in at the window again.'

'Is _this_ your love?' said Betty reproachfully. 'Oh, if you was
sickening for the plague itself, and going to be as ugly as the Ooser in
the church-vestry, I wouldn't - '

'No, no, you mistake, upon my soul!'

But Betty with a swollen heart had rewrapped herself and gone out of the
door. The horse was still standing there. She mounted by the help of
the upping-stock, and when he had followed her she said, 'Do not come
near me, Charley; but please lead the horse, so that if you've not caught
anything already you'll not catch it going back. After all, what keeps
off you may keep off him. Now onward.'

He did not resist her command, and back they went by the way they had
come, Betty shedding bitter tears at the retribution she had already
brought upon herself; for though she had reproached Phelipson, she was
staunch enough not to blame him in her secret heart for showing that his
love was only skin-deep. The horse was stopped in the plantation, and
they walked silently to the lawn, reaching the bushes wherein the ladder
still lay.

'Will you put it up for me?' she asked mournfully.

He re-erected the ladder without a word; but when she approached to
ascend he said, 'Good-bye, Betty!'

'Good-bye!' said she; and involuntarily turned her face towards his. He
hung back from imprinting the expected kiss: at which Betty started as if
she had received a poignant wound. She moved away so suddenly that he
hardly had time to follow her up the ladder to prevent her falling.

'Tell your mother to get the doctor at once!' he said anxiously.

She stepped in without looking behind; he descended, withdrew the ladder,
and went away.

Alone in her chamber, Betty flung herself upon her face on the bed, and
burst into shaking sobs. Yet she would not admit to herself that her
lover's conduct was unreasonable; only that her rash act of the previous
week had been wrong. No one had heard her enter, and she was too worn
out, in body and mind, to think or care about medical aid. In an hour or
so she felt yet more unwell, positively ill; and nobody coming to her at
the usual bedtime, she looked towards the door. Marks of the lock having
been forced were visible, and this made her chary of summoning a servant.
She opened the door cautiously and sallied forth downstairs.

In the dining-parlour, as it was called, the now sick and sorry Betty was
startled to see at that late hour not her mother, but a man sitting,
calmly finishing his supper. There was no servant in the room. He
turned, and she recognized her husband.

'Where's my mamma?' she demanded without preface.

'Gone to your father's. Is that - ' He stopped, aghast.

'Yes, sir. This spotted object is your wife! I've done it because I
don't want you to come near me!'

He was sixteen years her senior; old enough to be compassionate. 'My
poor child, you must get to bed directly! Don't be afraid of me - I'll
carry you upstairs, and send for a doctor instantly.'

'Ah, you don't know what I am!' she cried. 'I had a lover once; but now
he's gone! 'Twasn't I who deserted him. He has deserted me; because I
am ill he wouldn't kiss me, though I wanted him to!'

'Wouldn't he? Then he was a very poor slack-twisted sort of fellow.
Betty, _I've_ never kissed you since you stood beside me as my little
wife, twelve years and a half old! May I kiss you now?'

Though Betty by no means desired his kisses, she had enough of the spirit
of Cunigonde in Schiller's ballad to test his daring. 'If you have
courage to venture, yes sir!' said she. 'But you may die for it, mind!'

He came up to her and imprinted a deliberate kiss full upon her mouth,
saying, 'May many others follow!'

She shook her head, and hastily withdrew, though secretly pleased at his
hardihood. The excitement had supported her for the few minutes she had
passed in his presence, and she could hardly drag herself back to her
room. Her husband summoned the servants, and, sending them to her
assistance, went off himself for a doctor.

The next morning Reynard waited at the Court till he had learnt from the
medical man that Betty's attack promised to be a very light one - or, as
it was expressed, 'very fine'; and in taking his leave sent up a note to
her:

'Now I must be Gone. I promised your Mother I would not see You yet, and
she may be anger'd if she finds me here. Promise to see me as Soon as
you are well?'

He was of all men then living one of the best able to cope with such an
untimely situation as this. A contriving, sagacious, gentle-mannered
man, a philosopher who saw that the only constant attribute of life is
change, he held that, as long as she lives, there is nothing finite in
the most impassioned attitude a woman may take up. In twelve months his
girl-wife's recent infatuation might be as distasteful to her mind as it
was now to his own. In a few years her very flesh would change - so said
the scientific; - her spirit, so much more ephemeral, was capable of
changing in one. Betty was his, and it became a mere question of means
how to effect that change.

During the day Mrs. Dornell, having closed her husband's eyes, returned
to the Court. She was truly relieved to find Betty there, even though on
a bed of sickness. The disease ran its course, and in due time Betty
became convalescent, without having suffered deeply for her rashness, one
little speck beneath her ear, and one beneath her chin, being all the
marks she retained.

The Squire's body was not brought back to King's-Hintock. Where he was
born, and where he had lived before wedding his Sue, there he had wished
to be buried. No sooner had she lost him than Mrs. Dornell, like certain
other wives, though she had never shown any great affection for him while
he lived, awoke suddenly to his many virtues, and zealously embraced his
opinion about delaying Betty's union with her husband, which she had
formerly combated strenuously. 'Poor man! how right he was, and how
wrong was I!' Eighteen was certainly the lowest age at which Mr. Reynard
should claim her child - nay, it was too low! Far too low!

So desirous was she of honouring her lamented husband's sentiments in
this respect, that she wrote to her son-in-law suggesting that, partly on
account of Betty's sorrow for her father's loss, and out of consideration
for his known wishes for delay, Betty should not be taken from her till
her nineteenth birthday.

However much or little Stephen Reynard might have been to blame in his
marriage, the patient man now almost deserved to be pitied. First
Betty's skittishness; now her mother's remorseful _volte-face_: it was
enough to exasperate anybody; and he wrote to the widow in a tone which
led to a little coolness between those hitherto firm friends. However,
knowing that he had a wife not to claim but to win, and that young
Phelipson had been packed off to sea by his parents, Stephen was
complaisant to a degree, returning to London, and holding quite aloof
from Betty and her mother, who remained for the present in the country.
In town he had a mild visitation of the distemper he had taken from
Betty, and in writing to her he took care not to dwell upon its mildness.
It was now that Betty began to pity him for what she had inflicted upon
him by the kiss, and her correspondence acquired a distinct flavour of
kindness thenceforward.

Owing to his rebuffs, Reynard had grown to be truly in love with Betty in
his mild, placid, durable way - in that way which perhaps, upon the whole,
tends most generally to the woman's comfort under the institution of
marriage, if not particularly to her ecstasy. Mrs. Dornell's
exaggeration of her husband's wish for delay in their living together was
inconvenient, but he would not openly infringe it. He wrote tenderly to
Betty, and soon announced that he had a little surprise in store for her.
The secret was that the King had been graciously pleased to inform him
privately, through a relation, that His Majesty was about to offer him a
Barony. Would she like the title to be Ivell? Moreover, he had reason
for knowing that in a few years the dignity would be raised to that of an
Earl, for which creation he thought the title of Wessex would be
eminently suitable, considering the position of much of their property.
As Lady Ivell, therefore, and future Countess of Wessex, he should beg
leave to offer her his heart a third time.

He did not add, as he might have added, how greatly the consideration of
the enormous estates at King's-Hintock and elsewhere which Betty would
inherit, and her children after her, had conduced to this desirable
honour.

Whether the impending titles had really any effect upon Betty's regard
for him I cannot state, for she was one of those close characters who
never let their minds be known upon anything. That such honour was
absolutely unexpected by her from such a quarter is, however, certain;
and she could not deny that Stephen had shown her kindness, forbearance,
even magnanimity; had forgiven her for an errant passion which he might
with some reason have denounced, notwithstanding her cruel position as a
child entrapped into marriage ere able to understand its bearings.

Her mother, in her grief and remorse for the loveless life she had led
with her rough, though open-hearted, husband, made now a creed of his
merest whim; and continued to insist that, out of respect to his known
desire, her son-in-law should not reside with Betty till the girl's
father had been dead a year at least, at which time the girl would still
be under nineteen. Letters must suffice for Stephen till then.

'It is rather long for him to wait,' Betty hesitatingly said one day.

'What!' said her mother. 'From _you_? not to respect your dear father - '

'Of course it is quite proper,' said Betty hastily. 'I don't gainsay it.
I was but thinking that - that - '

In the long slow months of the stipulated interval her mother tended and
trained Betty carefully for her duties. Fully awake now to the many
virtues of her dear departed one, she, among other acts of pious devotion
to his memory, rebuilt the church of King's-Hintock village, and
established valuable charities in all the villages of that name, as far
as to Little-Hintock, several miles eastward.

In superintending these works, particularly that of the church-building,
her daughter Betty was her constant companion, and the incidents of their
execution were doubtless not without a soothing effect upon the young
creature's heart. She had sprung from girl to woman by a sudden bound,
and few would have recognized in the thoughtful face of Betty now the
same person who, the year before, had seemed to have absolutely no idea
whatever of responsibility, moral or other. Time passed thus till the
Squire had been nearly a year in his vault; and Mrs. Dornell was duly
asked by letter by the patient Reynard if she were willing for him to
come soon. He did not wish to take Betty away if her mother's sense of
loneliness would be too great, but would willingly live at King's-Hintock
awhile with them.

Before the widow had replied to this communication, she one day happened
to observe Betty walking on the south terrace in the full sunlight,
without hat or mantle, and was struck by her child's figure. Mrs.
Dornell called her in, and said suddenly: 'Have you seen your husband
since the time of your poor father's death?'

'Well - yes, mamma,' says Betty, colouring.

'What - against my wishes and those of your dear father! I am shocked at
your disobedience!'

'But my father said eighteen, ma'am, and you made it much longer - '

'Why, of course - out of consideration for you! When have ye seen him?'

'Well,' stammered Betty, 'in the course of his letters to me he said that
I belonged to him, and if nobody knew that we met it would make no
difference. And that I need not hurt your feelings by telling you.'

'Well?'

'So I went to Casterbridge that time you went to London about five months
ago - '

'And met him there? When did you come back?'

'Dear mamma, it grew very late, and he said it was safer not to go back
till next day, as the roads were bad; and as you were away from home - '

'I don't want to hear any more! This is your respect for your father's
memory,' groaned the widow. 'When did you meet him again?'

'Oh - not for more than a fortnight.'

'A fortnight! How many times have ye seen him altogether?'

'I'm sure, mamma, I've not seen him altogether a dozen times.'

'A dozen! And eighteen and a half years old barely!'

'Twice we met by accident,' pleaded Betty. 'Once at Abbot's-Cernel, and
another time at the Red Lion, Melchester.'

'O thou deceitful girl!' cried Mrs. Dornell. 'An accident took you to
the Red Lion whilst I was staying at the White Hart! I remember - you
came in at twelve o'clock at night and said you'd been to see the
cathedral by the light o' the moon!'

'My ever-honoured mamma, so I had! I only went to the Red Lion with him
afterwards.'

'Oh Betty, Betty! That my child should have deceived me even in my
widowed days!'

'But, my dearest mamma, you made me marry him!' says Betty with spirit,
'and of course I've to obey him more than you now!'

Mrs. Dornell sighed. 'All I have to say is, that you'd better get your
husband to join you as soon as possible,' she remarked. 'To go on
playing the maiden like this - I'm ashamed to see you!'

She wrote instantly to Stephen Reynard: 'I wash my hands of the whole
matter as between you two; though I should advise you to _openly_ join
each other as soon as you can - if you wish to avoid scandal.'

He came, though not till the promised title had been granted, and he
could call Betty archly 'My Lady.'

People said in after years that she and her husband were very happy.
However that may be, they had a numerous family; and she became in due
course first Countess of Wessex, as he had foretold.

The little white frock in which she had been married to him at the tender
age of twelve was carefully preserved among the relics at King's-Hintock
Court, where it may still be seen by the curious - a yellowing, pathetic
testimony to the small count taken of the happiness of an innocent child
in the social strategy of those days, which might have led, but
providentially did not lead, to great unhappiness.

When the Earl died Betty wrote him an epitaph, in which she described him
as the best of husbands, fathers, and friends, and called herself his
disconsolate widow.

Such is woman; or rather (not to give offence by so sweeping an
assertion), such was Betty Dornell.

* * * * *

It was at a meeting of one of the Wessex Field and Antiquarian Clubs that
the foregoing story, partly told, partly read from a manuscript, was made
to do duty for the regulation papers on deformed butterflies, fossil ox-
horns, prehistoric dung-mixens, and such like, that usually occupied the
more serious attention of the members.

This Club was of an inclusive and intersocial character; to a degree,
indeed, remarkable for the part of England in which it had its
being - dear, delightful Wessex, whose statuesque dynasties are even now
only just beginning to feel the shaking of the new and strange spirit
without, like that which entered the lonely valley of Ezekiel's vision
and made the dry bones move: where the honest squires, tradesmen,
parsons, clerks, and people still praise the Lord with one voice for His
best of all possible worlds.

The present meeting, which was to extend over two days, had opened its
proceedings at the museum of the town whose buildings and environs were
to be visited by the members. Lunch had ended, and the afternoon
excursion had been about to be undertaken, when the rain came down in an
obstinate spatter, which revealed no sign of cessation. As the members
waited they grew chilly, although it was only autumn, and a fire was
lighted, which threw a cheerful shine upon the varnished skulls, urns,
penates, tesserae, costumes, coats of mail, weapons, and missals,
animated the fossilized ichthyosaurus and iguanodon; while the dead eyes
of the stuffed birds - those never-absent familiars in such collections,
though murdered to extinction out of doors - flashed as they had flashed
to the rising sun above the neighbouring moors on the fatal morning when
the trigger was pulled which ended their little flight. It was then that
the historian produced his manuscript, which he had prepared, he said,
with a view to publication. His delivery of the story having concluded
as aforesaid, the speaker expressed his hope that the constraint of the
weather, and the paucity of more scientific papers, would excuse any
inappropriateness in his subject.

Several members observed that a storm-bound club could not presume to be
selective, and they were all very much obliged to him for such a curious
chapter from the domestic histories of the county.

The President looked gloomily from the window at the descending rain, and
broke a short silence by saying that though the Club had met, there
seemed little probability of its being able to visit the objects of
interest set down among the _agenda_.

The Treasurer observed that they had at least a roof over their heads;
and they had also a second day before them.

A sentimental member, leaning back in his chair, declared that he was in
no hurry to go out, and that nothing would please him so much as another
county story, with or without manuscript.

The Colonel added that the subject should be a lady, like the former, to
which a gentleman known as the Spark said 'Hear, hear!'

Though these had spoken in jest, a rural dean who was present observed
blandly that there was no lack of materials. Many, indeed, were the
legends and traditions of gentle and noble dames, renowned in times past
in that part of England, whose actions and passions were now, but for
men's memories, buried under the brief inscription on a tomb or an entry
of dates in a dry pedigree.

Another member, an old surgeon, a somewhat grim though sociable
personage, was quite of the speaker's opinion, and felt quite sure that
the memory of the reverend gentleman must abound with such curious tales
of fair dames, of their loves and hates, their joys and their
misfortunes, their beauty and their fate.

The parson, a trifle confused, retorted that their friend the surgeon,
the son of a surgeon, seemed to him, as a man who had seen much and heard
more during the long course of his own and his father's practice, the
member of all others most likely to be acquainted with such lore.

The bookworm, the Colonel, the historian, the Vice-president, the
churchwarden, the two curates, the gentleman-tradesman, the sentimental
member, the crimson maltster, the quiet gentleman, the man of family, the
Spark, and several others, quite agreed, and begged that he would recall
something of the kind. The old surgeon said that, though a meeting of
the Mid-Wessex Field and Antiquarian Club was the last place at which he
should have expected to be called upon in this way, he had no objection;
and the parson said he would come next. The surgeon then reflected, and
decided to relate the history of a lady named Barbara, who lived towards
the end of the last century, apologizing for his tale as being perhaps a
little too professional. The crimson maltster winked to the Spark at
hearing the nature of the apology, and the surgeon began.




DAME THE SECOND - BARBARA OF THE HOUSE OF GREBE
By the Old Surgeon


It was apparently an idea, rather than a passion, that inspired Lord
Uplandtowers' resolve to win her. Nobody ever knew when he formed it, or
whence he got his assurance of success in the face of her manifest
dislike of him. Possibly not until after that first important act of her
life which I shall presently mention. His matured and cynical doggedness
at the age of nineteen, when impulse mostly rules calculation, was
remarkable, and might have owed its existence as much to his succession
to the earldom and its accompanying local honours in childhood, as to the
family character; an elevation which jerked him into maturity, so to
speak, without his having known adolescence. He had only reached his
twelfth year when his father, the fourth Earl, died, after a course of
the Bath waters.

Nevertheless, the family character had a great deal to do with it.
Determination was hereditary in the bearers of that escutcheon; sometimes
for good, sometimes for evil.

The seats of the two families were about ten miles apart, the way between
them lying along the now old, then new, turnpike-road connecting
Havenpool and Warborne with the city of Melchester: a road which, though
only a branch from what was known as the Great Western Highway, is
probably, even at present, as it has been for the last hundred years, one
of the finest examples of a macadamized turnpike-track that can be found
in England.

The mansion of the Earl, as well as that of his neighbour, Barbara's
father, stood back about a mile from the highway, with which each was
connected by an ordinary drive and lodge. It was along this particular
highway that the young Earl drove on a certain evening at Christmastide
some twenty years before the end of the last century, to attend a ball at
Chene Manor, the home of Barbara, and her parents Sir John and Lady
Grebe. Sir John's was a baronetcy created a few years before the
breaking out of the Civil War, and his lands were even more extensive
than those of Lord Uplandtowers himself; comprising this Manor of Chene,
another on the coast near, half the Hundred of Cockdene, and
well-enclosed lands in several other parishes, notably Warborne and those
contiguous. At this time Barbara was barely seventeen, and the ball is
the first occasion on which we have any tradition of Lord Uplandtowers
attempting tender relations with her; it was early enough, God knows.

An intimate friend - one of the Drenkhards - is said to have dined with him
that day, and Lord Uplandtowers had, for a wonder, communicated to his
guest the secret design of his heart.

'You'll never get her - sure; you'll never get her!' this friend had said
at parting. 'She's not drawn to your lordship by love: and as for
thought of a good match, why, there's no more calculation in her than in
a bird.'

'We'll see,' said Lord Uplandtowers impassively.

He no doubt thought of his friend's forecast as he travelled along the
highway in his chariot; but the sculptural repose of his profile against
the vanishing daylight on his right hand would have shown his friend that
the Earl's equanimity was undisturbed. He reached the solitary wayside
tavern called Lornton Inn - the rendezvous of many a daring poacher for
operations in the adjoining forest; and he might have observed, if he had
taken the trouble, a strange post-chaise standing in the halting-space
before the inn. He duly sped past it, and half-an-hour after through the
little town of Warborne. Onward, a mile farther, was the house of his
entertainer.

At this date it was an imposing edifice - or, rather, congeries of
edifices - as extensive as the residence of the Earl himself; though far
less regular. One wing showed extreme antiquity, having huge chimneys,
whose substructures projected from the external walls like towers; and a
kitchen of vast dimensions, in which (it was said) breakfasts had been
cooked for John of Gaunt. Whilst he was yet in the forecourt he could
hear the rhythm of French horns and clarionets, the favourite instruments
of those days at such entertainments.

Entering the long parlour, in which the dance had just been opened by
Lady Grebe with a minuet - it being now seven o'clock, according to the
tradition - he was received with a welcome befitting his rank, and looked
round for Barbara. She was not dancing, and seemed to be
preoccupied - almost, indeed, as though she had been waiting for him.
Barbara at this time was a good and pretty girl, who never spoke ill of
any one, and hated other pretty women the very least possible. She did
not refuse him for the country-dance which followed, and soon after was
his partner in a second.

The evening wore on, and the horns and clarionets tootled merrily.
Barbara evinced towards her lover neither distinct preference nor
aversion; but old eyes would have seen that she pondered something.
However, after supper she pleaded a headache, and disappeared. To pass
the time of her absence, Lord Uplandtowers went into a little room


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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 4 of 16)