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

. (page 9 of 16)
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 9 of 16)
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to the senses, than that form of the emotion which arises from such
companionship in spots where all is life, and growth, and fecundity.

It was in this solemn place, whither they had withdrawn from the sight of
relatives on one cold day in March, that Sir Ashley Mottisfont asked in
marriage, as his second wife, Philippa, the gentle daughter of plain
Squire Okehall. Her life had been an obscure one thus far; while Sir
Ashley, though not a rich man, had a certain distinction about him; so
that everybody thought what a convenient, elevating, and, in a word,
blessed match it would be for such a supernumerary as she. Nobody
thought so more than the amiable girl herself. She had been smitten with
such affection for him that, when she walked the cathedral aisles at his
side on the before-mentioned day, she did not know that her feet touched
hard pavement; it seemed to her rather that she was floating in space.
Philippa was an ecstatic, heart-thumping maiden, and could not understand
how she had deserved to have sent to her such an illustrious lover, such
a travelled personage, such a handsome man.

When he put the question, it was in no clumsy language, such as the
ordinary bucolic county landlords were wont to use on like quivering
occasions, but as elegantly as if he had been taught it in Enfield's
_Speaker_. Yet he hesitated a little - for he had something to add.

'My pretty Philippa,' he said (she was not very pretty by the way), 'I
have, you must know, a little girl dependent upon me: a little waif I
found one day in a patch of wild oats [such was this worthy baronet's
humour] when I was riding home: a little nameless creature, whom I wish
to take care of till she is old enough to take care of herself; and to
educate in a plain way. She is only fifteen months old, and is at
present in the hands of a kind villager's wife in my parish. Will you
object to give some attention to the little thing in her helplessness?'

It need hardly be said that our innocent young lady, loving him so deeply
and joyfully as she did, replied that she would do all she could for the
nameless child; and, shortly afterwards, the pair were married in the
same cathedral that had echoed the whispers of his declaration, the
officiating minister being the Bishop himself; a venerable and
experienced man, so well accomplished in uniting people who had a mind
for that sort of experiment, that the couple, with some sense of
surprise, found themselves one while they were still vaguely gazing at
each other as two independent beings.

After this operation they went home to Deansleigh Park, and made a
beginning of living happily ever after. Lady Mottisfont, true to her
promise, was always running down to the village during the following
weeks to see the baby whom her husband had so mysteriously lighted on
during his ride home - concerning which interesting discovery she had her
own opinion; but being so extremely amiable and affectionate that she
could have loved stocks and stones if there had been no living creatures
to love, she uttered none of her thoughts. The little thing, who had
been christened Dorothy, took to Lady Mottisfont as if the baronet's
young wife had been her mother; and at length Philippa grew so fond of
the child that she ventured to ask her husband if she might have Dorothy
in her own home, and bring her up carefully, just as if she were her own.
To this he answered that, though remarks might be made thereon, he had no
objection; a fact which was obvious, Sir Ashley seeming rather pleased
than otherwise with the proposal.

After this they lived quietly and uneventfully for two or three years at
Sir Ashley Mottisfont's residence in that part of England, with as near
an approach to bliss as the climate of this country allows. The child
had been a godsend to Philippa, for there seemed no great probability of
her having one of her own: and she wisely regarded the possession of
Dorothy as a special kindness of Providence, and did not worry her mind
at all as to Dorothy's possible origin. Being a tender and impulsive
creature, she loved her husband without criticism, exhaustively and
religiously, and the child not much otherwise. She watched the little
foundling as if she had been her own by nature, and Dorothy became a
great solace to her when her husband was absent on pleasure or business;
and when he came home he looked pleased to see how the two had won each
other's hearts. Sir Ashley would kiss his wife, and his wife would kiss
little Dorothy, and little Dorothy would kiss Sir Ashley, and after this
triangular burst of affection Lady Mottisfont would say, 'Dear me - I
forget she is not mine!'

'What does it matter?' her husband would reply. 'Providence is
fore-knowing. He has sent us this one because he is not intending to
send us one by any other channel.'

Their life was of the simplest. Since his travels the baronet had taken
to sporting and farming; while Philippa was a pattern of domesticity.
Their pleasures were all local. They retired early to rest, and rose
with the cart-horses and whistling waggoners. They knew the names of
every bird and tree not exceptionally uncommon, and could foretell the
weather almost as well as anxious farmers and old people with corns.

One day Sir Ashley Mottisfont received a letter, which he read, and
musingly laid down on the table without remark.

'What is it, dearest?' asked his wife, glancing at the sheet.

'Oh, it is from an old lawyer at Bath whom I used to know. He reminds me
of something I said to him four or five years ago - some little time
before we were married - about Dorothy.'

'What about her?'

'It was a casual remark I made to him, when I thought you might not take
kindly to her, that if he knew a lady who was anxious to adopt a child,
and could insure a good home to Dorothy, he was to let me know.'

'But that was when you had nobody to take care of her,' she said quickly.
'How absurd of him to write now! Does he know you are married? He must,
surely.'

'Oh yes!'

He handed her the letter. The solicitor stated that a widow-lady of
position, who did not at present wish her name to be disclosed, had
lately become a client of his while taking the waters, and had mentioned
to him that she would like a little girl to bring up as her own, if she
could be certain of finding one of good and pleasing disposition; and,
the better to insure this, she would not wish the child to be too young
for judging her qualities. He had remembered Sir Ashley's observation to
him a long while ago, and therefore brought the matter before him. It
would be an excellent home for the little girl - of that he was
positive - if she had not already found such a home.

'But it is absurd of the man to write so long after!' said Lady
Mottisfont, with a lumpiness about the back of her throat as she thought
how much Dorothy had become to her. 'I suppose it was when you
first - found her - that you told him this?'

'Exactly - it was then.'

He fell into thought, and neither Sir Ashley nor Lady Mottisfont took the
trouble to answer the lawyer's letter; and so the matter ended for the
time.

One day at dinner, on their return from a short absence in town, whither
they had gone to see what the world was doing, hear what it was saying,
and to make themselves generally fashionable after rusticating for so
long - on this occasion, I say, they learnt from some friend who had
joined them at dinner that Fernell Hall - the manorial house of the estate
next their own, which had been offered on lease by reason of the
impecuniosity of its owner - had been taken for a term by a widow lady, an
Italian Contessa, whose name I will not mention for certain reasons which
may by and by appear. Lady Mottisfont expressed her surprise and
interest at the probability of having such a neighbour. 'Though, if I
had been born in Italy, I think I should have liked to remain there,' she
said.

'She is not Italian, though her husband was,' said Sir Ashley.

'Oh, you have heard about her before now?'

'Yes; they were talking of her at Grey's the other evening. She is
English.' And then, as her husband said no more about the lady, the
friend who was dining with them told Lady Mottisfont that the Countess's
father had speculated largely in East-India Stock, in which immense
fortunes were being made at that time; through this his daughter had
found herself enormously wealthy at his death, which had occurred only a
few weeks after the death of her husband. It was supposed that the
marriage of an enterprising English speculator's daughter to a poor
foreign nobleman had been matter of arrangement merely. As soon as the
Countess's widowhood was a little further advanced she would, no doubt,
be the mark of all the schemers who came near her, for she was still
quite young. But at present she seemed to desire quiet, and avoided
society and town.

Some weeks after this time Sir Ashley Mottisfont sat looking fixedly at
his lady for many moments. He said:

'It might have been better for Dorothy if the Countess had taken her. She
is so wealthy in comparison with ourselves, and could have ushered the
girl into the great world more effectually than we ever shall be able to
do.'

'The Contessa take Dorothy?' said Lady Mottisfont with a start. 'What - was
she the lady who wished to adopt her?'

'Yes; she was staying at Bath when Lawyer Gayton wrote to me.'

'But how do you know all this, Ashley?'

He showed a little hesitation. 'Oh, I've seen her,' he says. 'You know,
she drives to the meet sometimes, though she does not ride; and she has
informed me that she was the lady who inquired of Gayton.'

'You have talked to her as well as seen her, then?'

'Oh yes, several times; everybody has.'

'Why didn't you tell me?' says his lady. 'I had quite forgotten to call
upon her. I'll go to-morrow, or soon . . . But I can't think, Ashley,
how you can say that it might have been better for Dorothy to have gone
to her; she is so much our own now that I cannot admit any such
conjectures as those, even in jest.' Her eyes reproached him so
eloquently that Sir Ashley Mottisfont did not answer.

Lady Mottisfont did not hunt any more than the Anglo-Italian Countess
did; indeed, she had become so absorbed in household matters and in
Dorothy's wellbeing that she had no mind to waste a minute on mere
enjoyments. As she had said, to talk coolly of what might have been the
best destination in days past for a child to whom they had become so
attached seemed quite barbarous, and she could not understand how her
husband should consider the point so abstractedly; for, as will probably
have been guessed, Lady Mottisfont long before this time, if she had not
done so at the very beginning, divined Sir Ashley's true relation to
Dorothy. But the baronet's wife was so discreetly meek and mild that she
never told him of her surmise, and took what Heaven had sent her without
cavil, her generosity in this respect having been bountifully rewarded by
the new life she found in her love for the little girl.

Her husband recurred to the same uncomfortable subject when, a few days
later, they were speaking of travelling abroad. He said that it was
almost a pity, if they thought of going, that they had not fallen in with
the Countess's wish. That lady had told him that she had met Dorothy
walking with her nurse, and that she had never seen a child she liked so
well.

'What - she covets her still? How impertinent of the woman!' said Lady
Mottisfont.

'She seems to do so . . . You see, dearest Philippa, the advantage to
Dorothy would have been that the Countess would have adopted her legally,
and have made her as her own daughter; while we have not done that - we
are only bringing up and educating a poor child in charity.'

'But I'll adopt her fully - make her mine legally!' cried his wife in an
anxious voice. 'How is it to be done?'

'H'm.' He did not inform her, but fell into thought; and, for reasons of
her own, his lady was restless and uneasy.

The very next day Lady Mottisfont drove to Fernell Hall to pay the
neglected call upon her neighbour. The Countess was at home, and
received her graciously. But poor Lady Mottisfont's heart died within
her as soon as she set eyes on her new acquaintance. Such wonderful
beauty, of the fully-developed kind, had never confronted her before
inside the lines of a human face. She seemed to shine with every light
and grace that woman can possess. Her finished Continental manners, her
expanded mind, her ready wit, composed a study that made the other poor
lady sick; for she, and latterly Sir Ashley himself, were rather rural in
manners, and she felt abashed by new sounds and ideas from without. She
hardly knew three words in any language but her own, while this divine
creature, though truly English, had, apparently, whatever she wanted in
the Italian and French tongues to suit every impression; which was
considered a great improvement to speech in those days, and, indeed, is
by many considered as such in these.

'How very strange it was about the little girl!' the Contessa said to
Lady Mottisfont, in her gay tones. 'I mean, that the child the lawyer
recommended should, just before then, have been adopted by you, who are
now my neighbour. How is she getting on? I must come and see her.'

'Do you still want her?' asks Lady Mottisfont suspiciously.

'Oh, I should like to have her!'

'But you can't! She's mine!' said the other greedily.

A drooping manner appeared in the Countess from that moment.

Lady Mottisfont, too, was in a wretched mood all the way home that day.
The Countess was so charming in every way that she had charmed her gentle
ladyship; how should it be possible that she had failed to charm Sir
Ashley? Moreover, she had awakened a strange thought in Philippa's mind.
As soon as she reached home she rushed to the nursery, and there, seizing
Dorothy, frantically kissed her; then, holding her at arm's length, she
gazed with a piercing inquisitiveness into the girl's lineaments. She
sighed deeply, abandoned the wondering Dorothy, and hastened away.

She had seen there not only her husband's traits, which she had often
beheld before, but others, of the shade, shape, and expression which
characterized those of her new neighbour.

Then this poor lady perceived the whole perturbing sequence of things,
and asked herself how she could have been such a walking piece of
simplicity as not to have thought of this before. But she did not stay
long upbraiding herself for her shortsightedness, so overwhelmed was she
with misery at the spectacle of herself as an intruder between these. To
be sure she could not have foreseen such a conjuncture; but that did not
lessen her grief. The woman who had been both her husband's bliss and
his backsliding had reappeared free when he was no longer so, and she
evidently was dying to claim her own in the person of Dorothy, who had
meanwhile grown to be, to Lady Mottisfont, almost the only source of each
day's happiness, supplying her with something to watch over, inspiring
her with the sense of maternity, and so largely reflecting her husband's
nature as almost to deceive her into the pleasant belief that she
reflected her own also.

If there was a single direction in which this devoted and virtuous lady
erred, it was in the direction of over-submissiveness. When all is said
and done, and the truth told, men seldom show much self-sacrifice in
their conduct as lords and masters to helpless women bound to them for
life, and perhaps (though I say it with all uncertainty) if she had
blazed up in his face like a furze-faggot, directly he came home, she
might have helped herself a little. But God knows whether this is a true
supposition; at any rate she did no such thing; and waited and prayed
that she might never do despite to him who, she was bound to admit, had
always been tender and courteous towards her; and hoped that little
Dorothy might never be taken away.

By degrees the two households became friendly, and very seldom did a week
pass without their seeing something of each other. Try as she might, and
dangerous as she assumed the acquaintanceship to be, Lady Mottisfont
could detect no fault or flaw in her new friend. It was obvious that
Dorothy had been the magnet which had drawn the Contessa hither, and not
Sir Ashley.

Such beauty, united with such understanding and brightness, Philippa had
never before known in one of her own sex, and she tried to think (whether
she succeeded I do not know) that she did not mind the propinquity; since
a woman so rich, so fair, and with such a command of suitors, could not
desire to wreck the happiness of so inoffensive a person as herself.

The season drew on when it was the custom for families of distinction to
go off to The Bath, and Sir Ashley Mottisfont persuaded his wife to
accompany him thither with Dorothy. Everybody of any note was there this
year. From their own part of England came many that they knew; among the
rest, Lord and Lady Purbeck, the Earl and Countess of Wessex, Sir John
Grebe, the Drenkhards, Lady Stourvale, the old Duke of Hamptonshire, the
Bishop of Melchester, the Dean of Exonbury, and other lesser lights of
Court, pulpit, and field. Thither also came the fair Contessa, whom, as
soon as Philippa saw how much she was sought after by younger men, she
could not conscientiously suspect of renewed designs upon Sir Ashley.

But the Countess had finer opportunities than ever with Dorothy; for Lady
Mottisfont was often indisposed, and even at other times could not
honestly hinder an intercourse which gave bright ideas to the child.
Dorothy welcomed her new acquaintance with a strange and instinctive
readiness that intimated the wonderful subtlety of the threads which bind
flesh and flesh together.

At last the crisis came: it was precipitated by an accident. Dorothy and
her nurse had gone out one day for an airing, leaving Lady Mottisfont
alone indoors. While she sat gloomily thinking that in all likelihood
the Countess would contrive to meet the child somewhere, and exchange a
few tender words with her, Sir Ashley Mottisfont rushed in and informed
her that Dorothy had just had the narrowest possible escape from death.
Some workmen were undermining a house to pull it down for rebuilding,
when, without warning, the front wall inclined slowly outwards for its
fall, the nurse and child passing beneath it at the same moment. The
fall was temporarily arrested by the scaffolding, while in the meantime
the Countess had witnessed their imminent danger from the other side of
the street. Springing across, she snatched Dorothy from under the wall,
and pulled the nurse after her, the middle of the way being barely
reached before they were enveloped in the dense dust of the descending
mass, though not a stone touched them.

'Where is Dorothy?' says the excited Lady Mottisfont.

'She has her - she won't let her go for a time - '

'Has her? But she's _mine_ - she's mine!' cries Lady Mottisfont.

Then her quick and tender eyes perceived that her husband had almost
forgotten her intrusive existence in contemplating the oneness of
Dorothy's, the Countess's, and his own: he was in a dream of exaltation
which recognized nothing necessary to his well-being outside that welded
circle of three lives.

Dorothy was at length brought home; she was much fascinated by the
Countess, and saw nothing tragic, but rather all that was truly
delightful, in what had happened. In the evening, when the excitement
was over, and Dorothy was put to bed, Sir Ashley said, 'She has saved
Dorothy; and I have been asking myself what I can do for her as a slight
acknowledgment of her heroism. Surely we ought to let her have Dorothy
to bring up, since she still desires to do it? It would be so much to
Dorothy's advantage. We ought to look at it in that light, and not
selfishly.'

Philippa seized his hand. 'Ashley, Ashley! You don't mean it - that I
must lose my pretty darling - the only one I have?' She met his gaze with
her piteous mouth and wet eyes so painfully strained, that he turned away
his face.

The next morning, before Dorothy was awake, Lady Mottisfont stole to the
girl's bedside, and sat regarding her. When Dorothy opened her eyes, she
fixed them for a long time upon Philippa's features.

'Mamma - you are not so pretty as the Contessa, are you?' she said at
length.

'I am not, Dorothy.'

'Why are you not, mamma?'

'Dorothy - where would you rather live, always; with me, or with her?'

The little girl looked troubled. 'I am sorry, mamma; I don't mean to be
unkind; but I would rather live with her; I mean, if I might without
trouble, and you did not mind, and it could be just the same to us all,
you know.'

'Has she ever asked you the same question?'

'Never, mamma.'

There lay the sting of it: the Countess seemed the soul of honour and
fairness in this matter, test her as she might. That afternoon Lady
Mottisfont went to her husband with singular firmness upon her gentle
face.

'Ashley, we have been married nearly five years, and I have never
challenged you with what I know perfectly well - the parentage of
Dorothy.'

'Never have you, Philippa dear. Though I have seen that you knew from
the first.'

'From the first as to her father, not as to her mother. Her I did not
know for some time; but I know now.'

'Ah! you have discovered that too?' says he, without much surprise.

'Could I help it? Very well, that being so, I have thought it over; and
I have spoken to Dorothy. I agree to her going. I can do no less than
grant to the Countess her wish, after her kindness to my - your - her - child.'

Then this self-sacrificing woman went hastily away that he might not see
that her heart was bursting; and thereupon, before they left the city,
Dorothy changed her mother and her home. After this, the Countess went
away to London for a while, taking Dorothy with her; and the baronet and
his wife returned to their lonely place at Deansleigh Park without her.

To renounce Dorothy in the bustle of Bath was a different thing from
living without her in this quiet home. One evening Sir Ashley missed his
wife from the supper-table; her manner had been so pensive and woeful of
late that he immediately became alarmed. He said nothing, but looked
about outside the house narrowly, and discerned her form in the park,
where recently she had been accustomed to walk alone. In its lower
levels there was a pool fed by a trickling brook, and he reached this
spot in time to hear a splash. Running forward, he dimly perceived her
light gown floating in the water. To pull her out was the work of a few
instants, and bearing her indoors to her room, he undressed her, nobody
in the house knowing of the incident but himself. She had not been
immersed long enough to lose her senses, and soon recovered. She owned
that she had done it because the Contessa had taken away her child, as
she persisted in calling Dorothy. Her husband spoke sternly to her, and
impressed upon her the weakness of giving way thus, when all that had
happened was for the best. She took his reproof meekly, and admitted her
fault.

After that she became more resigned, but he often caught her in tears
over some doll, shoe, or ribbon of Dorothy's, and decided to take her to
the North of England for change of air and scene. This was not without
its beneficial effect, corporeally no less than mentally, as later events
showed, but she still evinced a preternatural sharpness of ear at the
most casual mention of the child. When they reached home, the Countess
and Dorothy were still absent from the neighbouring Fernell Hall, but in
a month or two they returned, and a little later Sir Ashley Mottisfont
came into his wife's room full of news.

'Well - would you think it, Philippa! After being so desperate, too,
about getting Dorothy to be with her!'

'Ah - what?'

'Our neighbour, the Countess, is going to be married again! It is to
somebody she has met in London.'

Lady Mottisfont was much surprised; she had never dreamt of such an
event. The conflict for the possession of Dorothy's person had obscured
the possibility of it; yet what more likely, the Countess being still
under thirty, and so good-looking?

'What is of still more interest to us, or to you,' continued her husband,
'is a kind offer she has made. She is willing that you should have
Dorothy back again. Seeing what a grief the loss of her has been to you,
she will try to do without her.'

'It is not for that; it is not to oblige me,' said Lady Mottisfont


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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 9 of 16)