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 7 of 16)
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Barbara within it, standing with her arms clasped tightly round the neck
of her Edmond, and her mouth on his. The shawl which she had thrown
round her nightclothes had slipped from her shoulders, and her long white
robe and pale face lent her the blanched appearance of a second statue
embracing the first. Between her kisses, she apostrophized it in a low
murmur of infantine tenderness:

'My only love - how could I be so cruel to you, my perfect one - so good
and true - I am ever faithful to you, despite my seeming infidelity! I
always think of you - dream of you - during the long hours of the day, and
in the night-watches! O Edmond, I am always yours!' Such words as
these, intermingled with sobs, and streaming tears, and dishevelled hair,
testified to an intensity of feeling in his wife which Lord Uplandtowers
had not dreamed of her possessing.

'Ha, ha!' says he to himself. 'This is where we evaporate - this is where
my hopes of a successor in the title dissolve - ha, ha! This must be seen
to, verily!'

Lord Uplandtowers was a subtle man when once he set himself to strategy;
though in the present instance he never thought of the simple stratagem
of constant tenderness. Nor did he enter the room and surprise his wife
as a blunderer would have done, but went back to his chamber as silently
as he had left it. When the Countess returned thither, shaken by spent
sobs and sighs, he appeared to be soundly sleeping as usual. The next
day he began his countermoves by making inquiries as to the whereabouts
of the tutor who had travelled with his wife's first husband; this
gentleman, he found, was now master of a grammar-school at no great
distance from Knollingwood. At the first convenient moment Lord
Uplandtowers went thither and obtained an interview with the said
gentleman. The schoolmaster was much gratified by a visit from such an
influential neighbour, and was ready to communicate anything that his
lordship desired to know.

After some general conversation on the school and its progress, the
visitor observed that he believed the schoolmaster had once travelled a
good deal with the unfortunate Mr. Willowes, and had been with him on the
occasion of his accident. He, Lord Uplandtowers, was interested in
knowing what had really happened at that time, and had often thought of
inquiring. And then the Earl not only heard by word of mouth as much as
he wished to know, but, their chat becoming more intimate, the
schoolmaster drew upon paper a sketch of the disfigured head, explaining
with bated breath various details in the representation.

'It was very strange and terrible!' said Lord Uplandtowers, taking the
sketch in his hand. 'Neither nose nor ears!'

A poor man in the town nearest to Knollingwood Hall, who combined the art
of sign-painting with ingenious mechanical occupations, was sent for by
Lord Uplandtowers to come to the Hall on a day in that week when the
Countess had gone on a short visit to her parents. His employer made the
man understand that the business in which his assistance was demanded was
to be considered private, and money insured the observance of this
request. The lock of the cupboard was picked, and the ingenious mechanic
and painter, assisted by the schoolmaster's sketch, which Lord
Uplandtowers had put in his pocket, set to work upon the god-like
countenance of the statue under my lord's direction. What the fire had
maimed in the original the chisel maimed in the copy. It was a fiendish
disfigurement, ruthlessly carried out, and was rendered still more
shocking by being tinted to the hues of life, as life had been after the
wreck.

Six hours after, when the workman was gone, Lord Uplandtowers looked upon
the result, and smiled grimly, and said:

'A statue should represent a man as he appeared in life, and that's as he
appeared. Ha! ha! But 'tis done to good purpose, and not idly.'

He locked the door of the closet with a skeleton key, and went his way to
fetch the Countess home.

That night she slept, but he kept awake. According to the tale, she
murmured soft words in her dream; and he knew that the tender converse of
her imaginings was held with one whom he had supplanted but in name. At
the end of her dream the Countess of Uplandtowers awoke and arose, and
then the enactment of former nights was repeated. Her husband remained
still and listened. Two strokes sounded from the clock in the pediment
without, when, leaving the chamber-door ajar, she passed along the
corridor to the other end, where, as usual, she obtained a light. So
deep was the silence that he could even from his bed hear her softly
blowing the tinder to a glow after striking the steel. She moved on into
the boudoir, and he heard, or fancied he heard, the turning of the key in
the closet-door. The next moment there came from that direction a loud
and prolonged shriek, which resounded to the farthest corners of the
house. It was repeated, and there was the noise of a heavy fall.

Lord Uplandtowers sprang out of bed. He hastened along the dark corridor
to the door of the boudoir, which stood ajar, and, by the light of the
candle within, saw his poor young Countess lying in a heap in her
nightdress on the floor of the closet. When he reached her side he found
that she had fainted, much to the relief of his fears that matters were
worse. He quickly shut up and locked in the hated image which had done
the mischief; and lifted his wife in his arms, where in a few instants
she opened her eyes. Pressing her face to his without saying a word, he
carried her back to her room, endeavouring as he went to disperse her
terrors by a laugh in her ear, oddly compounded of causticity,
predilection, and brutality.

'Ho - ho - ho!' says he. 'Frightened, dear one, hey? What a baby 'tis!
Only a joke, sure, Barbara - a splendid joke! But a baby should not go to
closets at midnight to look for the ghost of the dear departed! If it do
it must expect to be terrified at his aspect - ho - ho - ho!'

When she was in her bed-chamber, and had quite come to herself; though
her nerves were still much shaken, he spoke to her more sternly. 'Now,
my lady, answer me: do you love him - eh?'

'No - no!' she faltered, shuddering, with her expanded eyes fixed on her
husband. 'He is too terrible - no, no!'

'You are sure?'

'Quite sure!' replied the poor broken-spirited Countess. But her natural
elasticity asserted itself. Next morning he again inquired of her: 'Do
you love him now?'

She quailed under his gaze, but did not reply.

'That means that you do still, by G - -!' he continued.

'It means that I will not tell an untruth, and do not wish to incense my
lord,' she answered, with dignity.

'Then suppose we go and have another look at him?' As he spoke, he
suddenly took her by the wrist, and turned as if to lead her towards the
ghastly closet.

'No - no! Oh - no!' she cried, and her desperate wriggle out of his hand
revealed that the fright of the night had left more impression upon her
delicate soul than superficially appeared.

'Another dose or two, and she will be cured,' he said to himself.

It was now so generally known that the Earl and Countess were not in
accord, that he took no great trouble to disguise his deeds in relation
to this matter. During the day he ordered four men with ropes and
rollers to attend him in the boudoir. When they arrived, the closet was
open, and the upper part of the statue tied up in canvas. He had it
taken to the sleeping-chamber. What followed is more or less matter of
conjecture. The story, as told to me, goes on to say that, when Lady
Uplandtowers retired with him that night, she saw near the foot of the
heavy oak four-poster, a tall dark wardrobe, which had not stood there
before; but she did not ask what its presence meant.

'I have had a little whim,' he explained when they were in the dark.

'Have you?' says she.

'To erect a little shrine, as it may be called.'

'A little shrine?'

'Yes; to one whom we both equally adore - eh? I'll show you what it
contains.'

He pulled a cord which hung covered by the bed-curtains, and the doors of
the wardrobe slowly opened, disclosing that the shelves within had been
removed throughout, and the interior adapted to receive the ghastly
figure, which stood there as it had stood in the boudoir, but with a wax-
candle burning on each side of it to throw the cropped and distorted
features into relief. She clutched him, uttered a low scream, and buried
her head in the bedclothes. 'Oh, take it away - please take it away!' she
implored.

'All in good time namely, when you love me best,' he returned calmly.
'You don't quite yet - eh?'

'I don't know - I think - O Uplandtowers, have mercy - I cannot bear it - O,
in pity, take it away!'

'Nonsense; one gets accustomed to anything. Take another gaze.'

In short, he allowed the doors to remain unclosed at the foot of the bed,
and the wax-tapers burning; and such was the strange fascination of the
grisly exhibition that a morbid curiosity took possession of the Countess
as she lay, and, at his repeated request, she did again look out from the
coverlet, shuddered, hid her eyes, and looked again, all the while
begging him to take it away, or it would drive her out of her senses. But
he would not do so as yet, and the wardrobe was not locked till dawn.

The scene was repeated the next night. Firm in enforcing his ferocious
correctives, he continued the treatment till the nerves of the poor lady
were quivering in agony under the virtuous tortures inflicted by her
lord, to bring her truant heart back to faithfulness.

The third night, when the scene had opened as usual, and she lay staring
with immense wild eyes at the horrid fascination, on a sudden she gave an
unnatural laugh; she laughed more and more, staring at the image, till
she literally shrieked with laughter: then there was silence, and he
found her to have become insensible. He thought she had fainted, but
soon saw that the event was worse: she was in an epileptic fit. He
started up, dismayed by the sense that, like many other subtle
personages, he had been too exacting for his own interests. Such love as
he was capable of, though rather a selfish gloating than a cherishing
solicitude, was fanned into life on the instant. He closed the wardrobe
with the pulley, clasped her in his arms, took her gently to the window,
and did all he could to restore her.

It was a long time before the Countess came to herself, and when she did
so, a considerable change seemed to have taken place in her emotions. She
flung her arms around him, and with gasps of fear abjectly kissed him
many times, at last bursting into tears. She had never wept in this
scene before.

'You'll take it away, dearest - you will!' she begged plaintively.

'If you love me.'

'I do - oh, I do!'

'And hate him, and his memory?'

'Yes - yes!'

'Thoroughly?'

'I cannot endure recollection of him!' cried the poor Countess slavishly.
'It fills me with shame - how could I ever be so depraved! I'll never
behave badly again, Uplandtowers; and you will never put the hated statue
again before my eyes?'

He felt that he could promise with perfect safety. 'Never,' said he.

'And then I'll love you,' she returned eagerly, as if dreading lest the
scourge should be applied anew. 'And I'll never, never dream of thinking
a single thought that seems like faithlessness to my marriage vow.'

The strange thing now was that this fictitious love wrung from her by
terror took on, through mere habit of enactment, a certain quality of
reality. A servile mood of attachment to the Earl became distinctly
visible in her contemporaneously with an actual dislike for her late
husband's memory. The mood of attachment grew and continued when the
statue was removed. A permanent revulsion was operant in her, which
intensified as time wore on. How fright could have effected such a
change of idiosyncrasy learned physicians alone can say; but I believe
such cases of reactionary instinct are not unknown.

The upshot was that the cure became so permanent as to be itself a new
disease. She clung to him so tightly, that she would not willingly be
out of his sight for a moment. She would have no sitting-room apart from
his, though she could not help starting when he entered suddenly to her.
Her eyes were well-nigh always fixed upon him. If he drove out, she
wished to go with him; his slightest civilities to other women made her
frantically jealous; till at length her very fidelity became a burden to
him, absorbing his time, and curtailing his liberty, and causing him to
curse and swear. If he ever spoke sharply to her now, she did not
revenge herself by flying off to a mental world of her own; all that
affection for another, which had provided her with a resource, was now a
cold black cinder.

From that time the life of this scared and enervated lady - whose
existence might have been developed to so much higher purpose but for the
ignoble ambition of her parents and the conventions of the time - was one
of obsequious amativeness towards a perverse and cruel man. Little
personal events came to her in quick succession - half a dozen, eight,
nine, ten such events, - in brief; she bore him no less than eleven
children in the eight following years, but half of them came prematurely
into the world, or died a few days old; only one, a girl, attained to
maturity; she in after years became the wife of the Honourable Mr.
Beltonleigh, who was created Lord D'Almaine, as may be remembered.

There was no living son and heir. At length, completely worn out in mind
and body, Lady Uplandtowers was taken abroad by her husband, to try the
effect of a more genial climate upon her wasted frame. But nothing
availed to strengthen her, and she died at Florence, a few months after
her arrival in Italy.

Contrary to expectation, the Earl of Uplandtowers did not marry again.
Such affection as existed in him - strange, hard, brutal as it was - seemed
untransferable, and the title, as is known, passed at his death to his
nephew. Perhaps it may not be so generally known that, during the
enlargement of the Hall for the sixth Earl, while digging in the grounds
for the new foundations, the broken fragments of a marble statue were
unearthed. They were submitted to various antiquaries, who said that, so
far as the damaged pieces would allow them to form an opinion, the statue
seemed to be that of a mutilated Roman satyr; or if not, an allegorical
figure of Death. Only one or two old inhabitants guessed whose statue
those fragments had composed.

I should have added that, shortly after the death of the Countess, an
excellent sermon was preached by the Dean of Melchester, the subject of
which, though names were not mentioned, was unquestionably suggested by
the aforesaid events. He dwelt upon the folly of indulgence in sensuous
love for a handsome form merely; and showed that the only rational and
virtuous growths of that affection were those based upon intrinsic worth.
In the case of the tender but somewhat shallow lady whose life I have
related, there is no doubt that an infatuation for the person of young
Willowes was the chief feeling that induced her to marry him; which was
the more deplorable in that his beauty, by all tradition, was the least
of his recommendations, every report bearing out the inference that he
must have been a man of steadfast nature, bright intelligence, and
promising life.

* * * * *

The company thanked the old surgeon for his story, which the rural dean
declared to be a far more striking one than anything he could hope to
tell. An elderly member of the Club, who was mostly called the Bookworm,
said that a woman's natural instinct of fidelity would, indeed, send back
her heart to a man after his death in a truly wonderful manner
sometimes - if anything occurred to put before her forcibly the original
affection between them, and his original aspect in her eyes, - whatever
his inferiority may have been, social or otherwise; and then a general
conversation ensued upon the power that a woman has of seeing the actual
in the representation, the reality in the dream - a power which (according
to the sentimental member) men have no faculty of equalling.

The rural dean thought that such cases as that related by the surgeon
were rather an illustration of passion electrified back to life than of a
latent, true affection. The story had suggested that he should try to
recount to them one which he had used to hear in his youth, and which
afforded an instance of the latter and better kind of feeling, his
heroine being also a lady who had married beneath her, though he feared
his narrative would be of a much slighter kind than the surgeon's. The
Club begged him to proceed, and the parson began.




DAME THE THIRD - THE MARCHIONESS OF STONEHENGE
By the Rural Dean


I would have you know, then, that a great many years ago there lived in a
classical mansion with which I used to be familiar, standing not a
hundred miles from the city of Melchester, a lady whose personal charms
were so rare and unparalleled that she was courted, flattered, and spoilt
by almost all the young noblemen and gentlemen in that part of Wessex.
For a time these attentions pleased her well. But as, in the words of
good Robert South (whose sermons might be read much more than they are),
the most passionate lover of sport, if tied to follow his hawks and
hounds every day of his life, would find the pursuit the greatest torment
and calamity, and would fly to the mines and galleys for his recreation,
so did this lofty and beautiful lady after a while become satiated with
the constant iteration of what she had in its novelty enjoyed; and by an
almost natural revulsion turned her regards absolutely netherward,
socially speaking. She perversely and passionately centred her affection
on quite a plain-looking young man of humble birth and no position at
all; though it is true that he was gentle and delicate in nature, of good
address, and guileless heart. In short, he was the parish-clerk's son,
acting as assistant to the land-steward of her father, the Earl of Avon,
with the hope of becoming some day a land-steward himself. It should be
said that perhaps the Lady Caroline (as she was called) was a little
stimulated in this passion by the discovery that a young girl of the
village already loved the young man fondly, and that he had paid some
attentions to her, though merely of a casual and good-natured kind.

Since his occupation brought him frequently to the manor-house and its
environs, Lady Caroline could make ample opportunities of seeing and
speaking to him. She had, in Chaucer's phrase, 'all the craft of fine
loving' at her fingers' ends, and the young man, being of a
readily-kindling heart, was quick to notice the tenderness in her eyes
and voice. He could not at first believe in his good fortune, having no
understanding of her weariness of more artificial men; but a time comes
when the stupidest sees in an eye the glance of his other half; and it
came to him, who was quite the reverse of dull. As he gained confidence
accidental encounters led to encounters by design; till at length when
they were alone together there was no reserve on the matter. They
whispered tender words as other lovers do, and were as devoted a pair as
ever was seen. But not a ray or symptom of this attachment was allowed
to show itself to the outer world.

Now, as she became less and less scrupulous towards him under the
influence of her affection, and he became more and more reverential under
the influence of his, and they looked the situation in the face together,
their condition seemed intolerable in its hopelessness. That she could
ever ask to be allowed to marry him, or could hold her tongue and quietly
renounce him, was equally beyond conception. They resolved upon a third
course, possessing neither of the disadvantages of these two: to wed
secretly, and live on in outward appearance the same as before. In this
they differed from the lovers of my friend's story.

Not a soul in the parental mansion guessed, when Lady Caroline came
coolly into the hall one day after a visit to her aunt, that, during that
visit, her lover and herself had found an opportunity of uniting
themselves till death should part them. Yet such was the fact; the young
woman who rode fine horses, and drove in pony-chaises, and was saluted
deferentially by every one, and the young man who trudged about, and
directed the tree-felling, and the laying out of fish-ponds in the park,
were husband and wife.

As they had planned, so they acted to the letter for the space of a month
and more, clandestinely meeting when and where they best could do so;
both being supremely happy and content. To be sure, towards the latter
part of that month, when the first wild warmth of her love had gone off,
the Lady Caroline sometimes wondered within herself how she, who might
have chosen a peer of the realm, baronet, knight; or, if serious-minded,
a bishop or judge of the more gallant sort who prefer young wives, could
have brought herself to do a thing so rash as to make this marriage;
particularly when, in their private meetings, she perceived that though
her young husband was full of ideas, and fairly well read, they had not a
single social experience in common. It was his custom to visit her after
nightfall, in her own house, when he could find no opportunity for an
interview elsewhere; and to further this course she would contrive to
leave unfastened a window on the ground-floor overlooking the lawn, by
entering which a back stair-case was accessible; so that he could climb
up to her apartments, and gain audience of his lady when the house was
still.

One dark midnight, when he had not been able to see her during the day,
he made use of this secret method, as he had done many times before; and
when they had remained in company about an hour he declared that it was
time for him to descend.

He would have stayed longer, but that the interview had been a somewhat
painful one. What she had said to him that night had much excited and
angered him, for it had revealed a change in her; cold reason had come to
his lofty wife; she was beginning to have more anxiety about her own
position and prospects than ardour for him. Whether from the agitation
of this perception or not, he was seized with a spasm; he gasped, rose,
and in moving towards the window for air he uttered in a short thick
whisper, 'Oh, my heart!'

With his hand upon his chest he sank down to the floor before he had gone
another step. By the time that she had relighted the candle, which had
been extinguished in case any eye in the opposite grounds should witness
his egress, she found that his poor heart had ceased to beat; and there
rushed upon her mind what his cottage-friends had once told her, that he
was liable to attacks of heart-disease, one of which, the doctor had
informed them, might some day carry him off.

Accustomed as she was to doctoring the other parishioners, nothing that
she could effect upon him in that kind made any difference whatever; and
his stillness, and the increasing coldness of his feet and hands,
disclosed too surely to the affrighted young woman that her husband was
dead indeed. For more than an hour, however, she did not abandon her
efforts to restore him; when she fully realized the fact that he was a
corpse she bent over his body, distracted and bewildered as to what step
she next should take.

Her first feelings had undoubtedly been those of passionate grief at the
loss of him; her second thoughts were concern at her own position as the
daughter of an earl. 'Oh, why, why, my unfortunate husband, did you die
in my chamber at this hour!' she said piteously to the corpse. 'Why not
have died in your own cottage if you would die! Then nobody would ever
have known of our imprudent union, and no syllable would have been
breathed of how I mismated myself for love of you!'

The clock in the courtyard striking the hour of one aroused Lady Caroline
from the stupor into which she had fallen, and she stood up, and went
towards the door. To awaken and tell her mother seemed her only way out
of this terrible situation; yet when she put her hand on the key to
unlock it she withdrew herself again. It would be impossible to call
even her mother's assistance without risking a revelation to all the
world through the servants; while if she could remove the body unassisted
to a distance she might avert suspicion of their union even now. This
thought of immunity from the social consequences of her rash act, of


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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 7 of 16)