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 13 of 16)
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contrived to convey to him, by indirect hints through his friends, that
she would not be displeased by a renewal of his former attentions. Sir
William, however, misapprehended her gentle signalling, and from
excellent, though mistaken motives of delicacy, delayed to intrude
himself upon her for a long time. Meanwhile Sir John, now created a
baronet, was unremitting, and she began to grow somewhat piqued at the
backwardness of him she secretly desired to be forward.

'Never mind,' her friends said jestingly to her (knowing of her humorous
remark, as everybody did, that she would marry them all three if they
would have patience) - 'never mind; why hesitate upon the order of them?
Take 'em as they come.'

This vexed her still more, and regretting deeply, as she had often done,
that such a careless speech should ever have passed her lips, she fairly
broke down under Sir John's importunity, and accepted his hand. They
were married on a fine spring morning, about the very time at which the
unfortunate Sir William discovered her preference for him, and was
beginning to hasten home from a foreign court to declare his unaltered
devotion to her. On his arrival in England he learnt the sad truth.

If Sir William suffered at her precipitancy under what she had deemed his
neglect, the Lady Penelope herself suffered more. She had not long been
the wife of Sir John Gale before he showed a disposition to retaliate
upon her for the trouble and delay she had put him to in winning her.
With increasing frequency he would tell her that, as far as he could
perceive, she was an article not worth such labour as he had bestowed in
obtaining it, and such snubbings as he had taken from his rivals on the
same account. These and other cruel things he repeated till he made the
lady weep sorely, and wellnigh broke her spirit, though she had formerly
been such a mettlesome dame. By degrees it became perceptible to all her
friends that her life was a very unhappy one; and the fate of the fair
woman seemed yet the harder in that it was her own stately mansion, left
to her sole use by her first husband, which her second had entered into
and was enjoying, his being but a mean and meagre erection.

But such is the flippancy of friends that when she met them, and secretly
confided her grief to their ears, they would say cheerily, 'Lord, never
mind, my dear; there's a third to come yet!' - at which maladroit remark
she would show much indignation, and tell them they should know better
than to trifle on so solemn a theme. Yet that the poor lady would have
been only too happy to be the wife of the third, instead of Sir John whom
she had taken, was painfully obvious, and much she was blamed for her
foolish choice by some people. Sir William, however, had returned to
foreign cities on learning the news of her marriage, and had never been
heard of since.

Two or three years of suffering were passed by Lady Penelope as the
despised and chidden wife of this man Sir John, amid regrets that she had
so greatly mistaken him, and sighs for one whom she thought never to see
again, till it chanced that her husband fell sick of some slight ailment.
One day after this, when she was sitting in his room, looking from the
window upon the expanse in front, she beheld, approaching the house on
foot, a form she seemed to know well. Lady Penelope withdrew silently
from the sickroom, and descended to the hall, whence, through the
doorway, she saw entering between the two round towers, which at that
time flanked the gateway, Sir William Hervy, as she had surmised, but
looking thin and travel-worn. She advanced into the courtyard to meet

'I was passing through Casterbridge,' he said, with faltering deference,
'and I walked out to ask after your ladyship's health. I felt that I
could do no less; and, of course, to pay my respects to your good
husband, my heretofore acquaintance . . . But oh, Penelope, th'st look
sick and sorry!'

'I am heartsick, that's all,' said she.

They could see in each other an emotion which neither wished to express,
and they stood thus a long time with tears in their eyes.

'He does not treat 'ee well, I hear,' said Sir William in a low voice.
'May God in Heaven forgive him; but it is asking a great deal!'

'Hush, hush!' said she hastily.

'Nay, but I will speak what I may honestly say,' he answered. 'I am not
under your roof, and my tongue is free. Why didst not wait for me,
Penelope, or send to me a more overt letter? I would have travelled
night and day to come!'

'Too late, William; you must not ask it,' said she, endeavouring to quiet
him as in old times. 'My husband just now is unwell. He will grow
better in a day or two, maybe. You must call again and see him before
you leave Casterbridge.'

As she said this their eyes met. Each was thinking of her lightsome
words about taking the three men in turn; each thought that two-thirds of
that promise had been fulfilled. But, as if it were unpleasant to her
that this recollection should have arisen, she spoke again quickly: 'Come
again in a day or two, when my husband will be well enough to see you.'

Sir William departed without entering the house, and she returned to Sir
John's chamber. He, rising from his pillow, said, 'To whom hast been
talking, wife, in the courtyard? I heard voices there.'

She hesitated, and he repeated the question more impatiently.

'I do not wish to tell you now,' said she.

'But I wooll know!' said he.

Then she answered, 'Sir William Hervy.'

'By G - - I thought as much!' cried Sir John, drops of perspiration
standing on his white face. 'A skulking villain! A sick man's ears are
keen, my lady. I heard that they were lover-like tones, and he called
'ee by your Christian name. These be your intrigues, my lady, when I am
off my legs awhile!'

'On my honour,' cried she, 'you do me a wrong. I swear I did not know of
his coming!'

'Swear as you will,' said Sir John, 'I don't believe 'ee.' And with this
he taunted her, and worked himself into a greater passion, which much
increased his illness. His lady sat still, brooding. There was that
upon her face which had seldom been there since her marriage; and she
seemed to think anew of what she had so lightly said in the days of her
freedom, when her three lovers were one and all coveting her hand. 'I
began at the wrong end of them,' she murmured. 'My God - that did I!'

'What?' said he.

'A trifle,' said she. 'I spoke to myself only.'

It was somewhat strange that after this day, while she went about the
house with even a sadder face than usual, her churlish husband grew
worse; and what was more, to the surprise of all, though to the regret of
few, he died a fortnight later. Sir William had not called upon him as
he had promised, having received a private communication from Lady
Penelope, frankly informing him that to do so would be inadvisable, by
reason of her husband's temper.

Now when Sir John was gone, and his remains carried to his family burying-
place in another part of England, the lady began in due time to wonder
whither Sir William had betaken himself. But she had been cured of
precipitancy (if ever woman were), and was prepared to wait her whole
lifetime a widow if the said Sir William should not reappear. Her life
was now passed mostly within the walls, or in promenading between the
pleasaunce and the bowling-green; and she very seldom went even so far as
the high road which then skirted the grounds on the north, though it has
now, and for many years, been diverted to the south side. Her patience
was rewarded (if love be in any case a reward); for one day, many months
after her second husband's death, a messenger arrived at her gate with
the intelligence that Sir William Hervy was again in Casterbridge, and
would be glad to know if it were her pleasure that he should wait upon

It need hardly be said that permission was joyfully granted, and within
two hours her lover stood before her, a more thoughtful man than
formerly, but in all essential respects the same man, generous, modest to
diffidence, and sincere. The reserve which womanly decorum threw over
her manner was but too obviously artificial, and when he said 'the ways
of Providence are strange,' and added after a moment, 'and merciful
likewise,' she could not conceal her agitation, and burst into tears upon
his neck.

'But this is too soon,' she said, starting back.

'But no,' said he. 'You are eleven months gone in widowhood, and it is
not as if Sir John had been a good husband to you.'

His visits grew pretty frequent now, as may well be guessed, and in a
month or two he began to urge her to an early union. But she counselled
a little longer delay.

'Why?' said he. 'Surely I have waited long! Life is short; we are
getting older every day, and I am the last of the three.'

'Yes,' said the lady frankly. 'And that is why I would not have you
hasten. Our marriage may seem so strange to everybody, after my unlucky
remark on that occasion we know so well, and which so many others know
likewise, thanks to talebearers.'

On this representation he conceded a little space, for the sake of her
good name. But the destined day of their marriage at last arrived, and
it was a gay time for the villagers and all concerned, and the bells in
the parish church rang from noon till night. Thus at last she was united
to the man who had loved her the most tenderly of them all, who but for
his reticence might perhaps have been the first to win her. Often did he
say to himself; 'How wondrous that her words should have been fulfilled!
Many a truth hath been spoken in jest, but never a more remarkable one!'
The noble lady herself preferred not to dwell on the coincidence, a
certain shyness, if not shame, crossing her fair face at any allusion

But people will have their say, sensitive souls or none, and their
sayings on this third occasion took a singular shape. 'Surely,' they
whispered, 'there is something more than chance in this . . . The death
of the first was possibly natural; but what of the death of the second,
who ill-used her, and whom, loving the third so desperately, she must
have wished out of the way?'

Then they pieced together sundry trivial incidents of Sir John's illness,
and dwelt upon the indubitable truth that he had grown worse after her
lover's unexpected visit; till a very sinister theory was built up as to
the hand she may have had in Sir John's premature demise. But nothing of
this suspicion was said openly, for she was a lady of noble birth - nobler,
indeed, than either of her husbands - and what people suspected they
feared to express in formal accusation.

The mansion that she occupied had been left to her for so long a time as
she should choose to reside in it, and, having a regard for the spot, she
had coaxed Sir William to remain there. But in the end it was
unfortunate; for one day, when in the full tide of his happiness, he was
walking among the willows near the gardens, where he overheard a
conversation between some basket-makers who were cutting the osiers for
their use. In this fatal dialogue the suspicions of the neighbouring
townsfolk were revealed to him for the first time.

'A cupboard close to his bed, and the key in her pocket. Ah!' said one.

'And a blue phial therein - h'm!' said another.

'And spurge-laurel leaves among the hearth-ashes. Oh-oh!' said a third.

On his return home Sir William seemed to have aged years. But he said
nothing; indeed, it was a thing impossible. And from that hour a ghastly
estrangement began. She could not understand it, and simply waited. One
day he said, however, 'I must go abroad.'

'Why?' said she. 'William, have I offended you?'

'No,' said he; 'but I must go.'

She could coax little more out of him, and in itself there was nothing
unnatural in his departure, for he had been a wanderer from his youth. In
a few days he started off, apparently quite another man than he who had
rushed to her side so devotedly a few months before.

It is not known when, or how, the rumours, which were so thick in the
atmosphere around her, actually reached the Lady Penelope's ears, but
that they did reach her there is no doubt. It was impossible that they
should not; the district teemed with them; they rustled in the air like
night-birds of evil omen. Then a reason for her husband's departure
occurred to her appalled mind, and a loss of health became quickly
apparent. She dwindled thin in the face, and the veins in her temples
could all be distinctly traced. An inner fire seemed to be withering her
away. Her rings fell off her fingers, and her arms hung like the flails
of the threshers, though they had till lately been so round and so
elastic. She wrote to her husband repeatedly, begging him to return to
her; but he, being in extreme and wretched doubt, moreover, knowing
nothing of her ill-health, and never suspecting that the rumours had
reached her also, deemed absence best, and postponed his return awhile,
giving various good reasons for his delay.

At length, however, when the Lady Penelope had given birth to a still-
born child, her mother, the Countess, addressed a letter to Sir William,
requesting him to come back to her if he wished to see her alive; since
she was wasting away of some mysterious disease, which seemed to be
rather mental than physical. It was evident that his mother-in-law knew
nothing of the secret, for she lived at a distance; but Sir William
promptly hastened home, and stood beside the bed of his now dying wife.

'Believe me, William,' she said when they were alone, 'I am
innocent - innocent!'

'Of what?' said he. 'Heaven forbid that I should accuse you of

'But you do accuse me - silently!' she gasped. 'I could not write
thereon - and ask you to hear me. It was too much, too degrading. But
would that I had been less proud! They suspect me of poisoning him,
William! But, oh my dear husband, I am innocent of that wicked crime! He
died naturally. I loved you - too soon; but that was all!'

Nothing availed to save her. The worm had gnawed too far into her heart
before Sir William's return for anything to be remedial now; and in a few
weeks she breathed her last. After her death the people spoke louder,
and her conduct became a subject of public discussion. A little later
on, the physician, who had attended the late Sir John, heard the rumour,
and came down from the place near London to which he latterly had
retired, with the express purpose of calling upon Sir William Hervy, now
staying in Casterbridge.

He stated that, at the request of a relative of Sir John's, who wished to
be assured on the matter by reason of its suddenness, he had, with the
assistance of a surgeon, made a private examination of Sir John's body
immediately after his decease, and found that it had resulted from purely
natural causes. Nobody at this time had breathed a suspicion of foul
play, and therefore nothing was said which might afterwards have
established her innocence.

It being thus placed beyond doubt that this beautiful and noble lady had
been done to death by a vile scandal that was wholly unfounded, her
husband was stung with a dreadful remorse at the share he had taken in
her misfortunes, and left the country anew, this time never to return
alive. He survived her but a few years, and his body was brought home
and buried beside his wife's under the tomb which is still visible in the
parish church. Until lately there was a good portrait of her, in weeds
for her first husband, with a cross in her hand, at the ancestral seat of
her family, where she was much pitied, as she deserved to be. Yet there
were some severe enough to say - and these not unjust persons in other
respects - that though unquestionably innocent of the crime imputed to
her, she had shown an unseemly wantonness in contracting three marriages
in such rapid succession; that the untrue suspicion might have been
ordered by Providence (who often works indirectly) as a punishment for
her self-indulgence. Upon that point I have no opinion to offer.

* * * * *

The reverend the Vice-President, however, the tale being ended, offered
as his opinion that her fate ought to be quite clearly recognized as a
punishment. So thought the Churchwarden, and also the quiet gentleman
sitting near. The latter knew many other instances in point, one of
which could be narrated in a few words.

By the Quiet Gentleman

Some fifty years ago, the then Duke of Hamptonshire, fifth of that title,
was incontestibly the head man in his county, and particularly in the
neighbourhood of Batton. He came of the ancient and loyal family of
Saxelbye, which, before its ennoblement, had numbered many knightly and
ecclesiastical celebrities in its male line. It would have occupied a
painstaking county historian a whole afternoon to take rubbings of the
numerous effigies and heraldic devices graven to their memory on the
brasses, tablets, and altar-tombs in the aisle of the parish-church. The
Duke himself, however, was a man little attracted by ancient chronicles
in stone and metal, even when they concerned his own beginnings. He
allowed his mind to linger by preference on the many graceless and
unedifying pleasures which his position placed at his command. He could
on occasion close the mouths of his dependents by a good bomb-like oath,
and he argued doggedly with the parson on the virtues of cock-fighting
and baiting the bull.

This nobleman's personal appearance was somewhat impressive. His
complexion was that of the copper-beech tree. His frame was stalwart,
though slightly stooping. His mouth was large, and he carried an
unpolished sapling as his walking-stick, except when he carried a spud
for cutting up any thistle he encountered on his walks. His castle stood
in the midst of a park, surrounded by dusky elms, except to the
southward; and when the moon shone out, the gleaming stone facade, backed
by heavy boughs, was visible from the distant high road as a white spot
on the surface of darkness. Though called a castle, the building was
little fortified, and had been erected with greater eye to internal
convenience than those crannied places of defence to which the name
strictly appertains. It was a castellated mansion as regular as a
chessboard on its ground-plan, ornamented with make-believe bastions and
machicolations, behind which were stacks of battlemented chimneys. On
still mornings, at the fire-lighting hour, when ghostly house-maids stalk
the corridors, and thin streaks of light through the shutter-chinks lend
startling winks and smiles to ancestors on canvas, twelve or fifteen thin
stems of blue smoke sprouted upwards from these chimney-tops, and spread
into a flat canopy on high. Around the site stretched ten thousand acres
of good, fat, unimpeachable soil, plentiful in glades and lawns wherever
visible from the castle-windows, and merging in homely arable where
screened from the too curious eye by ingeniously-contrived plantations.

Some way behind the owner of all this came the second man in the parish,
the rector, the Honourable and Reverend Mr. Oldbourne, a widower, over
stiff and stern for a clergyman, whose severe white neckcloth, well-kept
gray hair, and right-lined face betokened none of those sympathetic
traits whereon depends so much of a parson's power to do good among his
fellow-creatures. The last, far-removed man of the series - altogether
the Neptune of these local primaries - was the curate, Mr. Alwyn Hill. He
was a handsome young deacon with curly hair, dreamy eyes - so dreamy that
to look long into them was like ascending and floating among summer
clouds - a complexion as fresh as a flower, and a chin absolutely
beardless. Though his age was about twenty-five, he looked not much over

The rector had a daughter called Emmeline, of so sweet and simple a
nature that her beauty was discovered, measured, and inventoried by
almost everybody in that part of the country before it was suspected by
herself to exist. She had been bred in comparative solitude; a
rencounter with men troubled and confused her. Whenever a strange
visitor came to her father's house she slipped into the orchard and
remained till he was gone, ridiculing her weakness in apostrophes, but
unable to overcome it. Her virtues lay in no resistant force of
character, but in a natural inappetency for evil things, which to her
were as unmeaning as joints of flesh to a herbivorous creature. Her
charms of person, manner, and mind, had been clear for some time to the
Antinous in orders, and no less so to the Duke, who, though scandalously
ignorant of dainty phrases, ever showing a clumsy manner towards the
gentler sex, and, in short, not at all a lady's man, took fire to a
degree that was wellnigh terrible at sudden sight of Emmeline, a short
time after she was turned seventeen.

It occurred one afternoon at the corner of a shrubbery between the castle
and the rectory, where the Duke was standing to watch the heaving of a
mole, when the fair girl brushed past at a distance of a few yards, in
the full light of the sun, and without hat or bonnet. The Duke went home
like a man who had seen a spirit. He ascended to the picture-gallery of
his castle, and there passed some time in staring at the bygone beauties
of his line as if he had never before considered what an important part
those specimens of womankind had played in the evolution of the Saxelbye
race. He dined alone, drank rather freely, and declared to himself that
Emmeline Oldbourne must be his.

Meanwhile there had unfortunately arisen between the curate and this girl
some sweet and secret understanding. Particulars of the attachment
remained unknown then and always, but it was plainly not approved of by
her father. His procedure was cold, hard, and inexorable. Soon the
curate disappeared from the parish, almost suddenly, after bitter and
hard words had been heard to pass between him and the rector one evening
in the garden, intermingled with which, like the cries of the dying in
the din of battle, were the beseeching sobs of a woman. Not long after
this it was announced that a marriage between the Duke and Miss Oldbourne
was to be solemnized at a surprisingly early date.

The wedding-day came and passed; and she was a Duchess. Nobody seemed to
think of the ousted man during the day, or else those who thought of him
concealed their meditations. Some of the less subservient ones were
disposed to speak in a jocular manner of the august husband and wife,
others to make correct and pretty speeches about them, according as their
sex and nature dictated. But in the evening, the ringers in the belfry,
with whom Alwyn had been a favourite, eased their minds a little
concerning the gentle young man, and the possible regrets of the woman he
had loved.

'Don't you see something wrong in it all?' said the third bell as he
wiped his face. 'I know well enough where she would have liked to stable
her horses to-night, when they have done their journey.'

'That is, you would know if you could tell where young Mr. Hill is
living, which is known to none in the parish.'

'Except to the lady that this ring o' grandsire triples is in honour of.'

Yet these friendly cottagers were at this time far from suspecting the
real dimensions of Emmeline's misery, nor was it clear even to those who
came into much closer communion with her than they, so well had she
concealed her heart-sickness. But bride and bridegroom had not long been
home at the castle when the young wife's unhappiness became plainly
enough perceptible. Her maids and men said that she was in the habit of
turning to the wainscot and shedding stupid scalding tears at a time when
a right-minded lady would have been overhauling her wardrobe. She prayed
earnestly in the great church-pew, where she sat lonely and insignificant
as a mouse in a cell, instead of counting her rings, falling asleep, or
amusing herself in silent laughter at the queer old people in the
congregation, as previous beauties of the family had done in their time.
She seemed to care no more for eating and drinking out of crystal and
silver than from a service of earthen vessels. Her head was, in truth,
full of something else; and that such was the case was only too obvious
to the Duke, her husband. At first he would only taunt her for her folly
in thinking of that milk-and-water parson; but as time went on his
charges took a more positive shape. He would not believe her assurance

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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 13 of 16)