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 6 of 16)
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his leading questions, or rather hints, she allowed her troubles to leak
out of her. Lord Uplandtowers took her quite to her own door, although
he had driven three miles out of his way to do so; and in handing her
down she heard from him a whisper of stern reproach: 'It need not have
been thus if you had listened to me!'

She made no reply, and went indoors. There, as the evening wore away,
she regretted more and more that she had been so friendly with Lord
Uplandtowers. But he had launched himself upon her so unexpectedly: if
she had only foreseen the meeting with him, what a careful line of
conduct she would have marked out! Barbara broke into a perspiration of
disquiet when she thought of her unreserve, and, in self-chastisement,
resolved to sit up till midnight on the bare chance of Edmond's return;
directing that supper should be laid for him, improbable as his arrival
till the morrow was.

The hours went past, and there was dead silence in and round about
Yewsholt Lodge, except for the soughing of the trees; till, when it was
near upon midnight, she heard the noise of hoofs and wheels approaching
the door. Knowing that it could only be her husband, Barbara instantly
went into the hall to meet him. Yet she stood there not without a
sensation of faintness, so many were the changes since their parting!
And, owing to her casual encounter with Lord Uplandtowers, his voice and
image still remained with her, excluding Edmond, her husband, from the
inner circle of her impressions.

But she went to the door, and the next moment a figure stepped inside, of
which she knew the outline, but little besides. Her husband was attired
in a flapping black cloak and slouched hat, appearing altogether as a
foreigner, and not as the young English burgess who had left her side.
When he came forward into the light of the lamp, she perceived with
surprise, and almost with fright, that he wore a mask. At first she had
not noticed this - there being nothing in its colour which would lead a
casual observer to think he was looking on anything but a real
countenance.

He must have seen her start of dismay at the unexpectedness of his
appearance, for he said hastily: 'I did not mean to come in to you like
this - I thought you would have been in bed. How good you are, dear
Barbara!' He put his arm round her, but he did not attempt to kiss her.

'O Edmond - it _is_ you? - it must be?' she said, with clasped hands, for
though his figure and movement were almost enough to prove it, and the
tones were not unlike the old tones, the enunciation was so altered as to
seem that of a stranger.

'I am covered like this to hide myself from the curious eyes of the inn-
servants and others,' he said, in a low voice. 'I will send back the
carriage and join you in a moment.'

'You are quite alone?'

'Quite. My companion stopped at Southampton.'

The wheels of the post-chaise rolled away as she entered the dining-room,
where the supper was spread; and presently he rejoined her there. He had
removed his cloak and hat, but the mask was still retained; and she could
now see that it was of special make, of some flexible material like silk,
coloured so as to represent flesh; it joined naturally to the front hair,
and was otherwise cleverly executed.

'Barbara - you look ill,' he said, removing his glove, and taking her
hand.

'Yes - I have been ill,' said she.

'Is this pretty little house ours?'

'O - yes.' She was hardly conscious of her words, for the hand he had
ungloved in order to take hers was contorted, and had one or two of its
fingers missing; while through the mask she discerned the twinkle of one
eye only.

'I would give anything to kiss you, dearest, now, at this moment!' he
continued, with mournful passionateness. 'But I cannot - in this guise.
The servants are abed, I suppose?'

'Yes,' said she. 'But I can call them? You will have some supper?'

He said he would have some, but that it was not necessary to call anybody
at that hour. Thereupon they approached the table, and sat down, facing
each other.

Despite Barbara's scared state of mind, it was forced upon her notice
that her husband trembled, as if he feared the impression he was
producing, or was about to produce, as much as, or more than, she. He
drew nearer, and took her hand again.

'I had this mask made at Venice,' he began, in evident embarrassment. 'My
darling Barbara - my dearest wife - do you think you - will mind when I take
it off? You will not dislike me - will you?'

'O Edmond, of course I shall not mind,' said she. 'What has happened to
you is our misfortune; but I am prepared for it.'

'Are you sure you are prepared?'

'O yes! You are my husband.'

'You really feel quite confident that nothing external can affect you?'
he said again, in a voice rendered uncertain by his agitation.

'I think I am - quite,' she answered faintly.

He bent his head. 'I hope, I hope you are,' he whispered.

In the pause which followed, the ticking of the clock in the hall seemed
to grow loud; and he turned a little aside to remove the mask. She
breathlessly awaited the operation, which was one of some tediousness,
watching him one moment, averting her face the next; and when it was done
she shut her eyes at the hideous spectacle that was revealed. A quick
spasm of horror had passed through her; but though she quailed she forced
herself to regard him anew, repressing the cry that would naturally have
escaped from her ashy lips. Unable to look at him longer, Barbara sank
down on the floor beside her chair, covering her eyes.

'You cannot look at me!' he groaned in a hopeless way. 'I am too
terrible an object even for you to bear! I knew it; yet I hoped against
it. Oh, this is a bitter fate - curse the skill of those Venetian
surgeons who saved me alive! . . . Look up, Barbara,' he continued
beseechingly; 'view me completely; say you loathe me, if you do loathe
me, and settle the case between us for ever!'

His unhappy wife pulled herself together for a desperate strain. He was
her Edmond; he had done her no wrong; he had suffered. A momentary
devotion to him helped her, and lifting her eyes as bidden she regarded
this human remnant, this _ecorche_, a second time. But the sight was too
much. She again involuntarily looked aside and shuddered.

'Do you think you can get used to this?' he said. 'Yes or no! Can you
bear such a thing of the charnel-house near you? Judge for yourself;
Barbara. Your Adonis, your matchless man, has come to this!'

The poor lady stood beside him motionless, save for the restlessness of
her eyes. All her natural sentiments of affection and pity were driven
clean out of her by a sort of panic; she had just the same sense of
dismay and fearfulness that she would have had in the presence of an
apparition. She could nohow fancy this to be her chosen one - the man she
had loved; he was metamorphosed to a specimen of another species. 'I do
not loathe you,' she said with trembling. 'But I am so horrified - so
overcome! Let me recover myself. Will you sup now? And while you do so
may I go to my room to - regain my old feeling for you? I will try, if I
may leave you awhile? Yes, I will try!'

Without waiting for an answer from him, and keeping her gaze carefully
averted, the frightened woman crept to the door and out of the room. She
heard him sit down to the table, as if to begin supper though, Heaven
knows, his appetite was slight enough after a reception which had
confirmed his worst surmises. When Barbara had ascended the stairs and
arrived in her chamber she sank down, and buried her face in the coverlet
of the bed.

Thus she remained for some time. The bed-chamber was over the dining-
room, and presently as she knelt Barbara heard Willowes thrust back his
chair, and rise to go into the hall. In five minutes that figure would
probably come up the stairs and confront her again; it, - this new and
terrible form, that was not her husband's. In the loneliness of this
night, with neither maid nor friend beside her, she lost all
self-control, and at the first sound of his footstep on the stairs,
without so much as flinging a cloak round her, she flew from the room,
ran along the gallery to the back staircase, which she descended, and,
unlocking the back door, let herself out. She scarcely was aware what
she had done till she found herself in the greenhouse, crouching on a
flower-stand.

Here she remained, her great timid eyes strained through the glass upon
the garden without, and her skirts gathered up, in fear of the field-mice
which sometimes came there. Every moment she dreaded to hear footsteps
which she ought by law to have longed for, and a voice that should have
been as music to her soul. But Edmond Willowes came not that way. The
nights were getting short at this season, and soon the dawn appeared, and
the first rays of the sun. By daylight she had less fear than in the
dark. She thought she could meet him, and accustom herself to the
spectacle.

So the much-tried young woman unfastened the door of the hot-house, and
went back by the way she had emerged a few hours ago. Her poor husband
was probably in bed and asleep, his journey having been long; and she
made as little noise as possible in her entry. The house was just as she
had left it, and she looked about in the hall for his cloak and hat, but
she could not see them; nor did she perceive the small trunk which had
been all that he brought with him, his heavier baggage having been left
at Southampton for the road-waggon. She summoned courage to mount the
stairs; the bedroom-door was open as she had left it. She fearfully
peeped round; the bed had not been pressed. Perhaps he had lain down on
the dining-room sofa. She descended and entered; he was not there. On
the table beside his unsoiled plate lay a note, hastily written on the
leaf of a pocket-book. It was something like this:

'MY EVER-BELOVED WIFE - The effect that my forbidding appearance has
produced upon you was one which I foresaw as quite possible. I hoped
against it, but foolishly so. I was aware that no _human_ love could
survive such a catastrophe. I confess I thought yours _divine_; but,
after so long an absence, there could not be left sufficient warmth to
overcome the too natural first aversion. It was an experiment, and it
has failed. I do not blame you; perhaps, even, it is better so. Good-
bye. I leave England for one year. You will see me again at the
expiration of that time, if I live. Then I will ascertain your true
feeling; and, if it be against me, go away for ever. E. W.'

On recovering from her surprise, Barbara's remorse was such that she felt
herself absolutely unforgiveable. She should have regarded him as an
afflicted being, and not have been this slave to mere eyesight, like a
child. To follow him and entreat him to return was her first thought.
But on making inquiries she found that nobody had seen him: he had
silently disappeared.

More than this, to undo the scene of last night was impossible. Her
terror had been too plain, and he was a man unlikely to be coaxed back by
her efforts to do her duty. She went and confessed to her parents all
that had occurred; which, indeed, soon became known to more persons than
those of her own family.

The year passed, and he did not return; and it was doubted if he were
alive. Barbara's contrition for her unconquerable repugnance was now
such that she longed to build a church-aisle, or erect a monument, and
devote herself to deeds of charity for the remainder of her days. To
that end she made inquiry of the excellent parson under whom she sat on
Sundays, at a vertical distance of twenty feet. But he could only adjust
his wig and tap his snuff-box; for such was the lukewarm state of
religion in those days, that not an aisle, steeple, porch, east window,
Ten-Commandment board, lion-and-unicorn, or brass candlestick, was
required anywhere at all in the neighbourhood as a votive offering from a
distracted soul - the last century contrasting greatly in this respect
with the happy times in which we live, when urgent appeals for
contributions to such objects pour in by every morning's post, and nearly
all churches have been made to look like new pennies. As the poor lady
could not ease her conscience this way, she determined at least to be
charitable, and soon had the satisfaction of finding her porch thronged
every morning by the raggedest, idlest, most drunken, hypocritical, and
worthless tramps in Christendom.

But human hearts are as prone to change as the leaves of the creeper on
the wall, and in the course of time, hearing nothing of her husband,
Barbara could sit unmoved whilst her mother and friends said in her
hearing, 'Well, what has happened is for the best.' She began to think
so herself; for even now she could not summon up that lopped and
mutilated form without a shiver, though whenever her mind flew back to
her early wedded days, and the man who had stood beside her then, a
thrill of tenderness moved her, which if quickened by his living presence
might have become strong. She was young and inexperienced, and had
hardly on his late return grown out of the capricious fancies of
girlhood.

But he did not come again, and when she thought of his word that he would
return once more, if living, and how unlikely he was to break his word,
she gave him up for dead. So did her parents; so also did another
person - that man of silence, of irresistible incisiveness, of still
countenance, who was as awake as seven sentinels when he seemed to be as
sound asleep as the figures on his family monument. Lord Uplandtowers,
though not yet thirty, had chuckled like a caustic fogey of threescore
when he heard of Barbara's terror and flight at her husband's return, and
of the latter's prompt departure. He felt pretty sure, however, that
Willowes, despite his hurt feelings, would have reappeared to claim his
bright-eyed property if he had been alive at the end of the twelve
months.

As there was no husband to live with her, Barbara had relinquished the
house prepared for them by her father, and taken up her abode anew at
Chene Manor, as in the days of her girlhood. By degrees the episode with
Edmond Willowes seemed but a fevered dream, and as the months grew to
years Lord Uplandtowers' friendship with the people at Chene - which had
somewhat cooled after Barbara's elopement - revived considerably, and he
again became a frequent visitor there. He could not make the most
trivial alteration or improvement at Knollingwood Hall, where he lived,
without riding off to consult with his friend Sir John at Chene; and thus
putting himself frequently under her eyes, Barbara grew accustomed to
him, and talked to him as freely as to a brother. She even began to look
up to him as a person of authority, judgment, and prudence; and though
his severity on the bench towards poachers, smugglers, and
turnip-stealers was matter of common notoriety, she trusted that much of
what was said might be misrepresentation.

Thus they lived on till her husband's absence had stretched to years, and
there could be no longer any doubt of his death. A passionless manner of
renewing his addresses seemed no longer out of place in Lord
Uplandtowers. Barbara did not love him, but hers was essentially one of
those sweet-pea or with-wind natures which require a twig of stouter
fibre than its own to hang upon and bloom. Now, too, she was older, and
admitted to herself that a man whose ancestor had run scores of Saracens
through and through in fighting for the site of the Holy Sepulchre was a
more desirable husband, socially considered, than one who could only
claim with certainty to know that his father and grandfather were
respectable burgesses.

Sir John took occasion to inform her that she might legally consider
herself a widow; and, in brief; Lord Uplandtowers carried his point with
her, and she married him, though he could never get her to own that she
loved him as she had loved Willowes. In my childhood I knew an old lady
whose mother saw the wedding, and she said that when Lord and Lady
Uplandtowers drove away from her father's house in the evening it was in
a coach-and-four, and that my lady was dressed in green and silver, and
wore the gayest hat and feather that ever were seen; though whether it
was that the green did not suit her complexion, or otherwise, the
Countess looked pale, and the reverse of blooming. After their marriage
her husband took her to London, and she saw the gaieties of a season
there; then they returned to Knollingwood Hall, and thus a year passed
away.

Before their marriage her husband had seemed to care but little about her
inability to love him passionately. 'Only let me win you,' he had said,
'and I will submit to all that.' But now her lack of warmth seemed to
irritate him, and he conducted himself towards her with a resentfulness
which led to her passing many hours with him in painful silence. The
heir-presumptive to the title was a remote relative, whom Lord
Uplandtowers did not exclude from the dislike he entertained towards many
persons and things besides, and he had set his mind upon a lineal
successor. He blamed her much that there was no promise of this, and
asked her what she was good for.

On a particular day in her gloomy life a letter, addressed to her as Mrs.
Willowes, reached Lady Uplandtowers from an unexpected quarter. A
sculptor in Pisa, knowing nothing of her second marriage, informed her
that the long-delayed life-size statue of Mr. Willowes, which, when her
husband left that city, he had been directed to retain till it was sent
for, was still in his studio. As his commission had not wholly been
paid, and the statue was taking up room he could ill spare, he should be
glad to have the debt cleared off, and directions where to forward the
figure. Arriving at a time when the Countess was beginning to have
little secrets (of a harmless kind, it is true) from her husband, by
reason of their growing estrangement, she replied to this letter without
saying a word to Lord Uplandtowers, sending off the balance that was
owing to the sculptor, and telling him to despatch the statue to her
without delay.

It was some weeks before it arrived at Knollingwood Hall, and, by a
singular coincidence, during the interval she received the first
absolutely conclusive tidings of her Edmond's death. It had taken place
years before, in a foreign land, about six months after their parting,
and had been induced by the sufferings he had already undergone, coupled
with much depression of spirit, which had caused him to succumb to a
slight ailment. The news was sent her in a brief and formal letter from
some relative of Willowes's in another part of England.

Her grief took the form of passionate pity for his misfortunes, and of
reproach to herself for never having been able to conquer her aversion to
his latter image by recollection of what Nature had originally made him.
The sad spectacle that had gone from earth had never been her Edmond at
all to her. O that she could have met him as he was at first! Thus
Barbara thought. It was only a few days later that a waggon with two
horses, containing an immense packing-case, was seen at breakfast-time
both by Barbara and her husband to drive round to the back of the house,
and by-and-by they were informed that a case labelled 'Sculpture' had
arrived for her ladyship.

'What can that be?' said Lord Uplandtowers.

'It is the statue of poor Edmond, which belongs to me, but has never been
sent till now,' she answered.

'Where are you going to put it?' asked he.

'I have not decided,' said the Countess. 'Anywhere, so that it will not
annoy you.'

'Oh, it won't annoy me,' says he.

When it had been unpacked in a back room of the house, they went to
examine it. The statue was a full-length figure, in the purest Carrara
marble, representing Edmond Willowes in all his original beauty, as he
had stood at parting from her when about to set out on his travels; a
specimen of manhood almost perfect in every line and contour. The work
had been carried out with absolute fidelity.

'Phoebus-Apollo, sure,' said the Earl of Uplandtowers, who had never seen
Willowes, real or represented, till now.

Barbara did not hear him. She was standing in a sort of trance before
the first husband, as if she had no consciousness of the other husband at
her side. The mutilated features of Willowes had disappeared from her
mind's eye; this perfect being was really the man she had loved, and not
that later pitiable figure; in whom love and truth should have seen this
image always, but had not done so.

It was not till Lord Uplandtowers said roughly, 'Are you going to stay
here all the morning worshipping him?' that she roused herself.

Her husband had not till now the least suspicion that Edmond Willowes
originally looked thus, and he thought how deep would have been his
jealousy years ago if Willowes had been known to him. Returning to the
Hall in the afternoon he found his wife in the gallery, whither the
statue had been brought.

She was lost in reverie before it, just as in the morning.

'What are you doing?' he asked.

She started and turned. 'I am looking at my husb - - my statue, to see if
it is well done,' she stammered. 'Why should I not?'

'There's no reason why,' he said. 'What are you going to do with the
monstrous thing? It can't stand here for ever.'

'I don't wish it,' she said. 'I'll find a place.'

In her boudoir there was a deep recess, and while the Earl was absent
from home for a few days in the following week, she hired joiners from
the village, who under her directions enclosed the recess with a panelled
door. Into the tabernacle thus formed she had the statue placed,
fastening the door with a lock, the key of which she kept in her pocket.

When her husband returned he missed the statue from the gallery, and,
concluding that it had been put away out of deference to his feelings,
made no remark. Yet at moments he noticed something on his lady's face
which he had never noticed there before. He could not construe it; it
was a sort of silent ecstasy, a reserved beatification. What had become
of the statue he could not divine, and growing more and more curious,
looked about here and there for it till, thinking of her private room, he
went towards that spot. After knocking he heard the shutting of a door,
and the click of a key; but when he entered his wife was sitting at work,
on what was in those days called knotting. Lord Uplandtowers' eye fell
upon the newly-painted door where the recess had formerly been.

'You have been carpentering in my absence then, Barbara,' he said
carelessly.

'Yes, Uplandtowers.'

'Why did you go putting up such a tasteless enclosure as that - spoiling
the handsome arch of the alcove?'

'I wanted more closet-room; and I thought that as this was my own
apartment - '

'Of course,' he returned. Lord Uplandtowers knew now where the statue of
young Willowes was.

One night, or rather in the smallest hours of the morning, he missed the
Countess from his side. Not being a man of nervous imaginings he fell
asleep again before he had much considered the matter, and the next
morning had forgotten the incident. But a few nights later the same
circumstances occurred. This time he fully roused himself; but before he
had moved to search for her, she entered the chamber in her
dressing-gown, carrying a candle, which she extinguished as she
approached, deeming him asleep. He could discover from her breathing
that she was strangely moved; but not on this occasion either did he
reveal that he had seen her. Presently, when she had lain down,
affecting to wake, he asked her some trivial questions. 'Yes, _Edmond_,'
she replied absently.

Lord Uplandtowers became convinced that she was in the habit of leaving
the chamber in this queer way more frequently than he had observed, and
he determined to watch. The next midnight he feigned deep sleep, and
shortly after perceived her stealthily rise and let herself out of the
room in the dark. He slipped on some clothing and followed. At the
farther end of the corridor, where the clash of flint and steel would be
out of the hearing of one in the bed-chamber, she struck a light. He
stepped aside into an empty room till she had lit a taper and had passed
on to her boudoir. In a minute or two he followed. Arrived at the door
of the boudoir, he beheld the door of the private recess open, and


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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 6 of 16)