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 5 of 16)
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adjoining the long gallery, where some elderly ones were sitting by the
fire - for he had a phlegmatic dislike of dancing for its own sake, - and,
lifting the window-curtains, he looked out of the window into the park
and wood, dark now as a cavern. Some of the guests appeared to be
leaving even so soon as this, two lights showing themselves as turning
away from the door and sinking to nothing in the distance.

His hostess put her head into the room to look for partners for the
ladies, and Lord Uplandtowers came out. Lady Grebe informed him that
Barbara had not returned to the ball-room: she had gone to bed in sheer
necessity.

'She has been so excited over the ball all day,' her mother continued,
'that I feared she would be worn out early . . . But sure, Lord
Uplandtowers, you won't be leaving yet?'

He said that it was near twelve o'clock, and that some had already left.

'I protest nobody has gone yet,' said Lady Grebe.

To humour her he stayed till midnight, and then set out. He had made no
progress in his suit; but he had assured himself that Barbara gave no
other guest the preference, and nearly everybody in the neighbourhood was
there.

''Tis only a matter of time,' said the calm young philosopher.

The next morning he lay till near ten o'clock, and he had only just come
out upon the head of the staircase when he heard hoofs upon the gravel
without; in a few moments the door had been opened, and Sir John Grebe
met him in the hall, as he set foot on the lowest stair.

'My lord - where's Barbara - my daughter?'

Even the Earl of Uplandtowers could not repress amazement. 'What's the
matter, my dear Sir John,' says he.

The news was startling, indeed. From the Baronet's disjointed
explanation Lord Uplandtowers gathered that after his own and the other
guests' departure Sir John and Lady Grebe had gone to rest without seeing
any more of Barbara; it being understood by them that she had retired to
bed when she sent word to say that she could not join the dancers again.
Before then she had told her maid that she would dispense with her
services for this night; and there was evidence to show that the young
lady had never lain down at all, the bed remaining unpressed.
Circumstances seemed to prove that the deceitful girl had feigned
indisposition to get an excuse for leaving the ball-room, and that she
had left the house within ten minutes, presumably during the first dance
after supper.

'I saw her go,' said Lord Uplandtowers.

'The devil you did!' says Sir John.

'Yes.' And he mentioned the retreating carriage-lights, and how he was
assured by Lady Grebe that no guest had departed.

'Surely that was it!' said the father. 'But she's not gone alone, d'ye
know!'

'Ah - who is the young man?'

'I can on'y guess. My worst fear is my most likely guess. I'll say no
more. I thought - yet I would not believe - it possible that you was the
sinner. Would that you had been! But 'tis t'other, 'tis t'other, by G - -!
I must e'en up, and after 'em!'

'Whom do you suspect?'

Sir John would not give a name, and, stultified rather than agitated,
Lord Uplandtowers accompanied him back to Chene. He again asked upon
whom were the Baronet's suspicions directed; and the impulsive Sir John
was no match for the insistence of Uplandtowers.

He said at length, 'I fear 'tis Edmond Willowes.'

'Who's he?'

'A young fellow of Shottsford-Forum - a widow-woman's son,' the other told
him, and explained that Willowes's father, or grandfather, was the last
of the old glass-painters in that place, where (as you may know) the art
lingered on when it had died out in every other part of England.

'By G - - that's bad - mighty bad!' said Lord Uplandtowers, throwing
himself back in the chaise in frigid despair.

They despatched emissaries in all directions; one by the Melchester Road,
another by Shottsford-Forum, another coastwards.

But the lovers had a ten-hours' start; and it was apparent that sound
judgment had been exercised in choosing as their time of flight the
particular night when the movements of a strange carriage would not be
noticed, either in the park or on the neighbouring highway, owing to the
general press of vehicles. The chaise which had been seen waiting at
Lornton Inn was, no doubt, the one they had escaped in; and the pair of
heads which had planned so cleverly thus far had probably contrived
marriage ere now.

The fears of her parents were realized. A letter sent by special
messenger from Barbara, on the evening of that day, briefly informed them
that her lover and herself were on the way to London, and before this
communication reached her home they would be united as husband and wife.
She had taken this extreme step because she loved her dear Edmond as she
could love no other man, and because she had seen closing round her the
doom of marriage with Lord Uplandtowers, unless she put that threatened
fate out of possibility by doing as she had done. She had well
considered the step beforehand, and was prepared to live like any other
country-townsman's wife if her father repudiated her for her action.

'D - - her!' said Lord Uplandtowers, as he drove homeward that night. 'D - -
her for a fool!' - which shows the kind of love he bore her.

Well; Sir John had already started in pursuit of them as a matter of
duty, driving like a wild man to Melchester, and thence by the direct
highway to the capital. But he soon saw that he was acting to no
purpose; and by and by, discovering that the marriage had actually taken
place, he forebore all attempts to unearth them in the City, and returned
and sat down with his lady to digest the event as best they could.

To proceed against this Willowes for the abduction of our heiress was,
possibly, in their power; yet, when they considered the now unalterable
facts, they refrained from violent retribution. Some six weeks passed,
during which time Barbara's parents, though they keenly felt her loss,
held no communication with the truant, either for reproach or
condonation. They continued to think of the disgrace she had brought
upon herself; for, though the young man was an honest fellow, and the son
of an honest father, the latter had died so early, and his widow had had
such struggles to maintain herself; that the son was very imperfectly
educated. Moreover, his blood was, as far as they knew, of no
distinction whatever, whilst hers, through her mother, was compounded of
the best juices of ancient baronial distillation, containing tinctures of
Maundeville, and Mohun, and Syward, and Peverell, and Culliford, and
Talbot, and Plantagenet, and York, and Lancaster, and God knows what
besides, which it was a thousand pities to throw away.

The father and mother sat by the fireplace that was spanned by the four-
centred arch bearing the family shields on its haunches, and groaned
aloud - the lady more than Sir John.

'To think this should have come upon us in our old age!' said he.

'Speak for yourself!' she snapped through her sobs. 'I am only one-and-
forty! . . . Why didn't ye ride faster and overtake 'em!'

In the meantime the young married lovers, caring no more about their
blood than about ditch-water, were intensely happy - happy, that is, in
the descending scale which, as we all know, Heaven in its wisdom has
ordained for such rash cases; that is to say, the first week they were in
the seventh heaven, the second in the sixth, the third week temperate,
the fourth reflective, and so on; a lover's heart after possession being
comparable to the earth in its geologic stages, as described to us
sometimes by our worthy President; first a hot coal, then a warm one,
then a cooling cinder, then chilly - the simile shall be pursued no
further. The long and the short of it was that one day a letter, sealed
with their daughter's own little seal, came into Sir John and Lady
Grebe's hands; and, on opening it, they found it to contain an appeal
from the young couple to Sir John to forgive them for what they had done,
and they would fall on their naked knees and be most dutiful children for
evermore.

Then Sir John and his lady sat down again by the fireplace with the four-
centred arch, and consulted, and re-read the letter. Sir John Grebe, if
the truth must be told, loved his daughter's happiness far more, poor
man, than he loved his name and lineage; he recalled to his mind all her
little ways, gave vent to a sigh; and, by this time acclimatized to the
idea of the marriage, said that what was done could not be undone, and
that he supposed they must not be too harsh with her. Perhaps Barbara
and her husband were in actual need; and how could they let their only
child starve?

A slight consolation had come to them in an unexpected manner. They had
been credibly informed that an ancestor of plebeian Willowes was once
honoured with intermarriage with a scion of the aristocracy who had gone
to the dogs. In short, such is the foolishness of distinguished parents,
and sometimes of others also, that they wrote that very day to the
address Barbara had given them, informing her that she might return home
and bring her husband with her; they would not object to see him, would
not reproach her, and would endeavour to welcome both, and to discuss
with them what could best be arranged for their future.

In three or four days a rather shabby post-chaise drew up at the door of
Chene Manor-house, at sound of which the tender-hearted baronet and his
wife ran out as if to welcome a prince and princess of the blood. They
were overjoyed to see their spoilt child return safe and sound - though
she was only Mrs. Willowes, wife of Edmond Willowes of nowhere. Barbara
burst into penitential tears, and both husband and wife were contrite
enough, as well they might be, considering that they had not a guinea to
call their own.

When the four had calmed themselves, and not a word of chiding had been
uttered to the pair, they discussed the position soberly, young Willowes
sitting in the background with great modesty till invited forward by Lady
Grebe in no frigid tone.

'How handsome he is!' she said to herself. 'I don't wonder at Barbara's
craze for him.'

He was, indeed, one of the handsomest men who ever set his lips on a
maid's. A blue coat, murrey waistcoat, and breeches of drab set off a
figure that could scarcely be surpassed. He had large dark eyes, anxious
now, as they glanced from Barbara to her parents and tenderly back again
to her; observing whom, even now in her trepidation, one could see why
the _sang froid_ of Lord Uplandtowers had been raised to more than
lukewarmness. Her fair young face (according to the tale handed down by
old women) looked out from under a gray conical hat, trimmed with white
ostrich-feathers, and her little toes peeped from a buff petticoat worn
under a puce gown. Her features were not regular: they were almost
infantine, as you may see from miniatures in possession of the family,
her mouth showing much sensitiveness, and one could be sure that her
faults would not lie on the side of bad temper unless for urgent reasons.

Well, they discussed their state as became them, and the desire of the
young couple to gain the goodwill of those upon whom they were literally
dependent for everything induced them to agree to any temporizing measure
that was not too irksome. Therefore, having been nearly two months
united, they did not oppose Sir John's proposal that he should furnish
Edmond Willowes with funds sufficient for him to travel a year on the
Continent in the company of a tutor, the young man undertaking to lend
himself with the utmost diligence to the tutor's instructions, till he
became polished outwardly and inwardly to the degree required in the
husband of such a lady as Barbara. He was to apply himself to the study
of languages, manners, history, society, ruins, and everything else that
came under his eyes, till he should return to take his place without
blushing by Barbara's side.

'And by that time,' said worthy Sir John, 'I'll get my little place out
at Yewsholt ready for you and Barbara to occupy on your return. The
house is small and out of the way; but it will do for a young couple for
a while.'

'If 'twere no bigger than a summer-house it would do!' says Barbara.

'If 'twere no bigger than a sedan-chair!' says Willowes. 'And the more
lonely the better.'

'We can put up with the loneliness,' said Barbara, with less zest. 'Some
friends will come, no doubt.'

All this being laid down, a travelled tutor was called in - a man of many
gifts and great experience, - and on a fine morning away tutor and pupil
went. A great reason urged against Barbara accompanying her youthful
husband was that his attentions to her would naturally be such as to
prevent his zealously applying every hour of his time to learning and
seeing - an argument of wise prescience, and unanswerable. Regular days
for letter-writing were fixed, Barbara and her Edmond exchanged their
last kisses at the door, and the chaise swept under the archway into the
drive.

He wrote to her from Le Havre, as soon as he reached that port, which was
not for seven days, on account of adverse winds; he wrote from Rouen, and
from Paris; described to her his sight of the King and Court at
Versailles, and the wonderful marble-work and mirrors in that palace;
wrote next from Lyons; then, after a comparatively long interval, from
Turin, narrating his fearful adventures in crossing Mont Cenis on mules,
and how he was overtaken with a terrific snowstorm, which had well-nigh
been the end of him, and his tutor, and his guides. Then he wrote
glowingly of Italy; and Barbara could see the development of her
husband's mind reflected in his letters month by month; and she much
admired the forethought of her father in suggesting this education for
Edmond. Yet she sighed sometimes - her husband being no longer in
evidence to fortify her in her choice of him - and timidly dreaded what
mortifications might be in store for her by reason of this _mesalliance_.
She went out very little; for on the one or two occasions on which she
had shown herself to former friends she noticed a distinct difference in
their manner, as though they should say, 'Ah, my happy swain's wife;
you're caught!'

Edmond's letters were as affectionate as ever; even more affectionate,
after a while, than hers were to him. Barbara observed this growing
coolness in herself; and like a good and honest lady was horrified and
grieved, since her only wish was to act faithfully and uprightly. It
troubled her so much that she prayed for a warmer heart, and at last
wrote to her husband to beg him, now that he was in the land of Art, to
send her his portrait, ever so small, that she might look at it all day
and every day, and never for a moment forget his features.

Willowes was nothing loth, and replied that he would do more than she
wished: he had made friends with a sculptor in Pisa, who was much
interested in him and his history; and he had commissioned this artist to
make a bust of himself in marble, which when finished he would send her.
What Barbara had wanted was something immediate; but she expressed no
objection to the delay; and in his next communication Edmund told her
that the sculptor, of his own choice, had decided to increase the bust to
a full-length statue, so anxious was he to get a specimen of his skill
introduced to the notice of the English aristocracy. It was progressing
well, and rapidly.

Meanwhile, Barbara's attention began to be occupied at home with Yewsholt
Lodge, the house that her kind-hearted father was preparing for her
residence when her husband returned. It was a small place on the plan of
a large one - a cottage built in the form of a mansion, having a central
hall with a wooden gallery running round it, and rooms no bigger than
closets to follow this introduction. It stood on a slope so solitary,
and surrounded by trees so dense, that the birds who inhabited the boughs
sang at strange hours, as if they hardly could distinguish night from
day.

During the progress of repairs at this bower Barbara frequently visited
it. Though so secluded by the dense growth, it was near the high road,
and one day while looking over the fence she saw Lord Uplandtowers riding
past. He saluted her courteously, yet with mechanical stiffness, and did
not halt. Barbara went home, and continued to pray that she might never
cease to love her husband. After that she sickened, and did not come out
of doors again for a long time.

The year of education had extended to fourteen months, and the house was
in order for Edmond's return to take up his abode there with Barbara,
when, instead of the accustomed letter for her, came one to Sir John
Grebe in the handwriting of the said tutor, informing him of a terrible
catastrophe that had occurred to them at Venice. Mr Willowes and himself
had attended the theatre one night during the Carnival of the preceding
week, to witness the Italian comedy, when, owing to the carelessness of
one of the candle-snuffers, the theatre had caught fire, and been burnt
to the ground. Few persons had lost their lives, owing to the superhuman
exertions of some of the audience in getting out the senseless sufferers;
and, among them all, he who had risked his own life the most heroically
was Mr. Willowes. In re-entering for the fifth time to save his fellow-
creatures some fiery beams had fallen upon him, and he had been given up
for lost. He was, however, by the blessing of Providence, recovered,
with the life still in him, though he was fearfully burnt; and by almost
a miracle he seemed likely to survive, his constitution being wondrously
sound. He was, of course, unable to write, but he was receiving the
attention of several skilful surgeons. Further report would be made by
the next mail or by private hand.

The tutor said nothing in detail of poor Willowes's sufferings, but as
soon as the news was broken to Barbara she realized how intense they must
have been, and her immediate instinct was to rush to his side, though, on
consideration, the journey seemed impossible to her. Her health was by
no means what it had been, and to post across Europe at that season of
the year, or to traverse the Bay of Biscay in a sailing-craft, was an
undertaking that would hardly be justified by the result. But she was
anxious to go till, on reading to the end of the letter, her husband's
tutor was found to hint very strongly against such a step if it should be
contemplated, this being also the opinion of the surgeons. And though
Willowes's comrade refrained from giving his reasons, they disclosed
themselves plainly enough in the sequel.

The truth was that the worst of the wounds resulting from the fire had
occurred to his head and face - that handsome face which had won her heart
from her, - and both the tutor and the surgeons knew that for a sensitive
young woman to see him before his wounds had healed would cause more
misery to her by the shock than happiness to him by her ministrations.

Lady Grebe blurted out what Sir John and Barbara had thought, but had had
too much delicacy to express.

'Sure, 'tis mighty hard for you, poor Barbara, that the one little gift
he had to justify your rash choice of him - his wonderful good
looks - should be taken away like this, to leave 'ee no excuse at all for
your conduct in the world's eyes . . . Well, I wish you'd married
t'other - that do I!' And the lady sighed.

'He'll soon get right again,' said her father soothingly.

Such remarks as the above were not often made; but they were frequent
enough to cause Barbara an uneasy sense of self-stultification. She
determined to hear them no longer; and the house at Yewsholt being ready
and furnished, she withdrew thither with her maids, where for the first
time she could feel mistress of a home that would be hers and her
husband's exclusively, when he came.

After long weeks Willowes had recovered sufficiently to be able to write
himself; and slowly and tenderly he enlightened her upon the full extent
of his injuries. It was a mercy, he said, that he had not lost his sight
entirely; but he was thankful to say that he still retained full vision
in one eye, though the other was dark for ever. The sparing manner in
which he meted out particulars of his condition told Barbara how
appalling had been his experience. He was grateful for her assurance
that nothing could change her; but feared she did not fully realize that
he was so sadly disfigured as to make it doubtful if she would recognize
him. However, in spite of all, his heart was as true to her as it ever
had been.

Barbara saw from his anxiety how much lay behind. She replied that she
submitted to the decrees of Fate, and would welcome him in any shape as
soon as he could come. She told him of the pretty retreat in which she
had taken up her abode, pending their joint occupation of it, and did not
reveal how much she had sighed over the information that all his good
looks were gone. Still less did she say that she felt a certain
strangeness in awaiting him, the weeks they had lived together having
been so short by comparison with the length of his absence.

Slowly drew on the time when Willowes found himself well enough to come
home. He landed at Southampton, and posted thence towards Yewsholt.
Barbara arranged to go out to meet him as far as Lornton Inn - the spot
between the Forest and the Chase at which he had waited for night on the
evening of their elopement. Thither she drove at the appointed hour in a
little pony-chaise, presented her by her father on her birthday for her
especial use in her new house; which vehicle she sent back on arriving at
the inn, the plan agreed upon being that she should perform the return
journey with her husband in his hired coach.

There was not much accommodation for a lady at this wayside tavern; but,
as it was a fine evening in early summer, she did not mind - walking about
outside, and straining her eyes along the highway for the expected one.
But each cloud of dust that enlarged in the distance and drew near was
found to disclose a conveyance other than his post-chaise. Barbara
remained till the appointment was two hours passed, and then began to
fear that owing to some adverse wind in the Channel he was not coming
that night.

While waiting she was conscious of a curious trepidation that was not
entirely solicitude, and did not amount to dread; her tense state of
incertitude bordered both on disappointment and on relief. She had lived
six or seven weeks with an imperfectly educated yet handsome husband whom
now she had not seen for seventeen months, and who was so changed
physically by an accident that she was assured she would hardly know him.
Can we wonder at her compound state of mind?

But her immediate difficulty was to get away from Lornton Inn, for her
situation was becoming embarrassing. Like too many of Barbara's actions,
this drive had been undertaken without much reflection. Expecting to
wait no more than a few minutes for her husband in his post-chaise, and
to enter it with him, she had not hesitated to isolate herself by sending
back her own little vehicle. She now found that, being so well known in
this neighbourhood, her excursion to meet her long-absent husband was
exciting great interest. She was conscious that more eyes were watching
her from the inn-windows than met her own gaze. Barbara had decided to
get home by hiring whatever kind of conveyance the tavern afforded, when,
straining her eyes for the last time over the now darkening highway, she
perceived yet another dust-cloud drawing near. She paused; a chariot
ascended to the inn, and would have passed had not its occupant caught
sight of her standing expectantly. The horses were checked on the
instant.

'You here - and alone, my dear Mrs. Willowes?' said Lord Uplandtowers,
whose carriage it was.

She explained what had brought her into this lonely situation; and, as he
was going in the direction of her own home, she accepted his offer of a
seat beside him. Their conversation was embarrassed and fragmentary at
first; but when they had driven a mile or two she was surprised to find
herself talking earnestly and warmly to him: her impulsiveness was in
truth but the natural consequence of her late existence - a somewhat
desolate one by reason of the strange marriage she had made; and there is
no more indiscreet mood than that of a woman surprised into talk who has
long been imposing upon herself a policy of reserve. Therefore her
ingenuous heart rose with a bound into her throat when, in response to


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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 5 of 16)