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 8 of 16)
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renewed freedom, was indubitably a relief to her, for, as has been said,
the constraint and riskiness of her position had begun to tell upon the
Lady Caroline's nerves.

She braced herself for the effort, and hastily dressed herself; and then
dressed him. Tying his dead hands together with a handkerchief; she laid
his arms round her shoulders, and bore him to the landing and down the
narrow stairs. Reaching the bottom by the window, she let his body slide
slowly over the sill till it lay on the ground without. She then climbed
over the window-sill herself, and, leaving the sash open, dragged him on
to the lawn with a rustle not louder than the rustle of a broom. There
she took a securer hold, and plunged with him under the trees.

Away from the precincts of the house she could apply herself more
vigorously to her task, which was a heavy one enough for her, robust as
she was; and the exertion and fright she had already undergone began to
tell upon her by the time she reached the corner of a beech-plantation
which intervened between the manor-house and the village. Here she was
so nearly exhausted that she feared she might have to leave him on the
spot. But she plodded on after a while, and keeping upon the grass at
every opportunity she stood at last opposite the poor young man's garden-
gate, where he lived with his father, the parish-clerk. How she
accomplished the end of her task Lady Caroline never quite knew; but, to
avoid leaving traces in the road, she carried him bodily across the
gravel, and laid him down at the door. Perfectly aware of his ways of
coming and going, she searched behind the shutter for the cottage door-
key, which she placed in his cold hand. Then she kissed his face for the
last time, and with silent little sobs bade him farewell.

Lady Caroline retraced her steps, and reached the mansion without
hindrance; and to her great relief found the window open just as she had
left it. When she had climbed in she listened attentively, fastened the
window behind her, and ascending the stairs noiselessly to her room, set
everything in order, and returned to bed.

The next morning it was speedily echoed around that the amiable and
gentle young villager had been found dead outside his father's door,
which he had apparently been in the act of unlocking when he fell. The
circumstances were sufficiently exceptional to justify an inquest, at
which syncope from heart-disease was ascertained to be beyond doubt the
explanation of his death, and no more was said about the matter then.
But, after the funeral, it was rumoured that some man who had been
returning late from a distant horse-fair had seen in the gloom of night a
person, apparently a woman, dragging a heavy body of some sort towards
the cottage-gate, which, by the light of after events, would seem to have
been the corpse of the young fellow. His clothes were thereupon examined
more particularly than at first, with the result that marks of friction
were visible upon them here and there, precisely resembling such as would
be left by dragging on the ground.

Our beautiful and ingenious Lady Caroline was now in great consternation;
and began to think that, after all, it might have been better to honestly
confess the truth. But having reached this stage without discovery or
suspicion, she determined to make another effort towards concealment; and
a bright idea struck her as a means of securing it. I think I mentioned
that, before she cast eyes on the unfortunate steward's clerk, he had
been the beloved of a certain village damsel, the woodman's daughter, his
neighbour, to whom he had paid some attentions; and possibly he was
beloved of her still. At any rate, the Lady Caroline's influence on the
estates of her father being considerable, she resolved to seek an
interview with the young girl in furtherance of her plan to save her
reputation, about which she was now exceedingly anxious; for by this
time, the fit being over, she began to be ashamed of her mad passion for
her late husband, and almost wished she had never seen him.

In the course of her parish-visiting she lighted on the young girl
without much difficulty, and found her looking pale and sad, and wearing
a simple black gown, which she had put on out of respect for the young
man's memory, whom she had tenderly loved, though he had not loved her.

'Ah, you have lost your lover, Milly,' said Lady Caroline.

The young woman could not repress her tears. 'My lady, he was not quite
my lover,' she said. 'But I was his - and now he is dead I don't care to
live any more!'

'Can you keep a secret about him?' asks the lady; 'one in which his
honour is involved - which is known to me alone, but should be known to

The girl readily promised, and, indeed, could be safely trusted on such a
subject, so deep was her affection for the youth she mourned.

'Then meet me at his grave to-night, half-an-hour after sunset, and I
will tell it to you,' says the other.

In the dusk of that spring evening the two shadowy figures of the young
women converged upon the assistant-steward's newly-turfed mound; and at
that solemn place and hour, the one of birth and beauty unfolded her
tale: how she had loved him and married him secretly; how he had died in
her chamber; and how, to keep her secret, she had dragged him to his own

'Married him, my lady!' said the rustic maiden, starting back.

'I have said so,' replied Lady Caroline. 'But it was a mad thing, and a
mistaken course. He ought to have married you. You, Milly, were
peculiarly his. But you lost him.'

'Yes,' said the poor girl; 'and for that they laughed at me. "Ha - ha,
you mid love him, Milly," they said; "but he will not love you!"'

'Victory over such unkind jeerers would be sweet,' said Lady Caroline.
'You lost him in life; but you may have him in death _as if_ you had had
him in life; and so turn the tables upon them.'

'How?' said the breathless girl.

The young lady then unfolded her plan, which was that Milly should go
forward and declare that the young man had contracted a secret marriage
(as he truly had done); that it was with her, Milly, his sweetheart; that
he had been visiting her in her cottage on the evening of his death;
when, on finding he was a corpse, she had carried him to his house to
prevent discovery by her parents, and that she had meant to keep the
whole matter a secret till the rumours afloat had forced it from her.

'And how shall I prove this?' said the woodman's daughter, amazed at the
boldness of the proposal.

'Quite sufficiently. You can say, if necessary, that you were married to
him at the church of St. Michael, in Bath City, in my name, as the first
that occurred to you, to escape detection. That was where he married me.
I will support you in this.'

'Oh - I don't quite like - '

'If you will do so,' said the lady peremptorily, 'I will always be your
father's friend and yours; if not, it will be otherwise. And I will give
you my wedding-ring, which you shall wear as yours.'

'Have you worn it, my lady?'

'Only at night.'

There was not much choice in the matter, and Milly consented. Then this
noble lady took from her bosom the ring she had never been able openly to
exhibit, and, grasping the young girl's hand, slipped it upon her finger
as she stood upon her lover's grave.

Milly shivered, and bowed her head, saying, 'I feel as if I had become a
corpse's bride!'

But from that moment the maiden was heart and soul in the substitution. A
blissful repose came over her spirit. It seemed to her that she had
secured in death him whom in life she had vainly idolized; and she was
almost content. After that the lady handed over to the young man's new
wife all the little mementoes and trinkets he had given herself; even to
a locket containing his hair.

The next day the girl made her so-called confession, which the simple
mourning she had already worn, without stating for whom, seemed to bear
out; and soon the story of the little romance spread through the village
and country-side, almost as far as Melchester. It was a curious
psychological fact that, having once made the avowal, Milly seemed
possessed with a spirit of ecstasy at her position. With the liberal sum
of money supplied to her by Lady Caroline she now purchased the garb of a
widow, and duly appeared at church in her weeds, her simple face looking
so sweet against its margin of crape that she was almost envied her state
by the other village-girls of her age. And when a woman's sorrow for her
beloved can maim her young life so obviously as it had done Milly's there
was, in truth, little subterfuge in the case. Her explanation tallied so
well with the details of her lover's latter movements - those strange
absences and sudden returnings, which had occasionally puzzled his
friends - that nobody supposed for a moment that the second actor in these
secret nuptials was other than she. The actual and whole truth would
indeed have seemed a preposterous assertion beside this plausible one, by
reason of the lofty demeanour of the Lady Caroline and the unassuming
habits of the late villager. There being no inheritance in question, not
a soul took the trouble to go to the city church, forty miles off, and
search the registers for marriage signatures bearing out so humble a

In a short time Milly caused a decent tombstone to be erected over her
nominal husband's grave, whereon appeared the statement that it was
placed there by his heartbroken widow, which, considering that the
payment for it came from Lady Caroline and the grief from Milly, was as
truthful as such inscriptions usually are, and only required pluralizing
to render it yet more nearly so.

The impressionable and complaisant Milly, in her character of widow, took
delight in going to his grave every day, and indulging in sorrow which
was a positive luxury to her. She placed fresh flowers on his grave, and
so keen was her emotional imaginativeness that she almost believed
herself to have been his wife indeed as she walked to and fro in her garb
of woe. One afternoon, Milly being busily engaged in this labour of love
at the grave, Lady Caroline passed outside the churchyard wall with some
of her visiting friends, who, seeing Milly there, watched her actions
with interest, remarked upon the pathos of the scene, and upon the
intense affection the young man must have felt for such a tender creature
as Milly. A strange light, as of pain, shot from the Lady Caroline's
eye, as if for the first time she begrudged to the young girl the
position she had been at such pains to transfer to her; it showed that a
slumbering affection for her husband still had life in Lady Caroline,
obscured and stifled as it was by social considerations.

An end was put to this smooth arrangement by the sudden appearance in the
churchyard one day of the Lady Caroline, when Milly had come there on her
usual errand of laying flowers. Lady Caroline had been anxiously
awaiting her behind the chancel, and her countenance was pale and

'Milly!' she said, 'come here! I don't know how to say to you what I am
going to say. I am half dead!'

'I am sorry for your ladyship,' says Milly, wondering.

'Give me that ring!' says the lady, snatching at the girl's left hand.

Milly drew it quickly away.

'I tell you give it to me!' repeated Caroline, almost fiercely. 'Oh - but
you don't know why? I am in a grief and a trouble I did not expect!' And
Lady Caroline whispered a few words to the girl.

'O my lady!' said the thunderstruck Milly. 'What _will_ you do?'

'You must say that your statement was a wicked lie, an invention, a
scandal, a deadly sin - that I told you to make it to screen me! That it
was I whom he married at Bath. In short, we must tell the truth, or I am
ruined - body, mind, and reputation - for ever!'

But there is a limit to the flexibility of gentle-souled women. Milly by
this time had so grown to the idea of being one flesh with this young
man, of having the right to bear his name as she bore it; had so
thoroughly come to regard him as her husband, to dream of him as her
husband, to speak of him as her husband, that she could not relinquish
him at a moment's peremptory notice.

'No, no,' she said desperately, 'I cannot, I will not give him up! Your
ladyship took him away from me alive, and gave him back to me only when
he was dead. Now I will keep him! I am truly his widow. More truly
than you, my lady! for I love him and mourn for him, and call myself by
his dear name, and your ladyship does neither!'

'I _do_ love him!' cries Lady Caroline with flashing eyes, 'and I cling
to him, and won't let him go to such as you! How can I, when he is the
father of this poor babe that's coming to me? I must have him back
again! Milly, Milly, can't you pity and understand me, perverse girl
that you are, and the miserable plight that I am in? Oh, this
precipitancy - it is the ruin of women! Why did I not consider, and wait!
Come, give me back all that I have given you, and assure me you will
support me in confessing the truth!'

'Never, never!' persisted Milly, with woe-begone passionateness. 'Look
at this headstone! Look at my gown and bonnet of crape - this ring:
listen to the name they call me by! My character is worth as much to me
as yours is to you! After declaring my Love mine, myself his, taking his
name, making his death my own particular sorrow, how can I say it was not
so? No such dishonour for me! I will outswear you, my lady; and I shall
be believed. My story is so much the more likely that yours will be
thought false. But, O please, my lady, do not drive me to this! In pity
let me keep him!'

The poor nominal widow exhibited such anguish at a proposal which would
have been truly a bitter humiliation to her, that Lady Caroline was
warmed to pity in spite of her own condition.

'Yes, I see your position,' she answered. 'But think of mine! What can
I do? Without your support it would seem an invention to save me from
disgrace; even if I produced the register, the love of scandal in the
world is such that the multitude would slur over the fact, say it was a
fabrication, and believe your story. I do not know who were the
witnesses, or anything!'

In a few minutes these two poor young women felt, as so many in a strait
have felt before, that union was their greatest strength, even now; and
they consulted calmly together. The result of their deliberations was
that Milly went home as usual, and Lady Caroline also, the latter
confessing that very night to the Countess her mother of the marriage,
and to nobody else in the world. And, some time after, Lady Caroline and
her mother went away to London, where a little while later still they
were joined by Milly, who was supposed to have left the village to
proceed to a watering-place in the North for the benefit of her health,
at the expense of the ladies of the Manor, who had been much interested
in her state of lonely and defenceless widowhood.

Early the next year the widow Milly came home with an infant in her arms,
the family at the Manor House having meanwhile gone abroad. They did not
return from their tour till the autumn ensuing, by which time Milly and
the child had again departed from the cottage of her father the woodman,
Milly having attained to the dignity of dwelling in a cottage of her own,
many miles to the eastward of her native village; a comfortable little
allowance had moreover been settled on her and the child for life,
through the instrumentality of Lady Caroline and her mother.

Two or three years passed away, and the Lady Caroline married a
nobleman - the Marquis of Stonehenge - considerably her senior, who had
wooed her long and phlegmatically. He was not rich, but she led a placid
life with him for many years, though there was no child of the marriage.
Meanwhile Milly's boy, as the youngster was called, and as Milly herself
considered him, grew up, and throve wonderfully, and loved her as she
deserved to be loved for her devotion to him, in whom she every day
traced more distinctly the lineaments of the man who had won her girlish
heart, and kept it even in the tomb.

She educated him as well as she could with the limited means at her
disposal, for the allowance had never been increased, Lady Caroline, or
the Marchioness of Stonehenge as she now was, seeming by degrees to care
little what had become of them. Milly became extremely ambitious on the
boy's account; she pinched herself almost of necessaries to send him to
the Grammar School in the town to which they retired, and at twenty he
enlisted in a cavalry regiment, joining it with a deliberate intent of
making the Army his profession, and not in a freak of idleness. His
exceptional attainments, his manly bearing, his steady conduct, speedily
won him promotion, which was furthered by the serious war in which this
country was at that time engaged. On his return to England after the
peace he had risen to the rank of riding-master, and was soon after
advanced another stage, and made quartermaster, though still a young man.

His mother - his corporeal mother, that is, the Marchioness of
Stonehenge - heard tidings of this unaided progress; it reawakened her
maternal instincts, and filled her with pride. She became keenly
interested in her successful soldier-son; and as she grew older much
wished to see him again, particularly when, the Marquis dying, she was
left a solitary and childless widow. Whether or not she would have gone
to him of her own impulse I cannot say; but one day, when she was driving
in an open carriage in the outskirts of a neighbouring town, the troops
lying at the barracks hard by passed her in marching order. She eyed
them narrowly, and in the finest of the horsemen recognized her son from
his likeness to her first husband.

This sight of him doubly intensified the motherly emotions which had lain
dormant in her for so many years, and she wildly asked herself how she
could so have neglected him? Had she possessed the true courage of
affection she would have owned to her first marriage, and have reared him
as her son! What would it have mattered if she had never obtained this
precious coronet of pearls and gold leaves, by comparison with the gain
of having the love and protection of such a noble and worthy son? These
and other sad reflections cut the gloomy and solitary lady to the heart;
and she repented of her pride in disclaiming her first husband more
bitterly than she had ever repented of her infatuation in marrying him.

Her yearning was so strong, that at length it seemed to her that she
could not live without announcing herself to him as his mother. Come
what might, she would do it: late as it was, she would have him away from
that woman whom she began to hate with the fierceness of a deserted
heart, for having taken her place as the mother of her only child. She
felt confidently enough that her son would only too gladly exchange a
cottage-mother for one who was a peeress of the realm. Being now, in her
widowhood, free to come and go as she chose, without question from
anybody, Lady Stonehenge started next day for the little town where Milly
yet lived, still in her robes of sable for the lost lover of her youth.

'He is _my_ son,' said the Marchioness, as soon as she was alone in the
cottage with Milly. 'You must give him back to me, now that I am in a
position in which I can defy the world's opinion. I suppose he comes to
see you continually?'

'Every month since he returned from the war, my lady. And sometimes he
stays two or three days, and takes me about seeing sights everywhere!'
She spoke with quiet triumph.

'Well, you will have to give him up,' said the Marchioness calmly. 'It
shall not be the worse for you - you may see him when you choose. I am
going to avow my first marriage, and have him with me.'

'You forget that there are two to be reckoned with, my lady. Not only
me, but himself.'

'That can be arranged. You don't suppose that he wouldn't - ' But not
wishing to insult Milly by comparing their positions, she said, 'He is my
own flesh and blood, not yours.'

'Flesh and blood's nothing!' said Milly, flashing with as much scorn as a
cottager could show to a peeress, which, in this case, was not so little
as may be supposed. 'But I will agree to put it to him, and let him
settle it for himself.'

'That's all I require,' said Lady Stonehenge. 'You must ask him to come,
and I will meet him here.'

The soldier was written to, and the meeting took place. He was not so
much astonished at the disclosure of his parentage as Lady Stonehenge had
been led to expect, having known for years that there was a little
mystery about his birth. His manner towards the Marchioness, though
respectful, was less warm than she could have hoped. The alternatives as
to his choice of a mother were put before him. His answer amazed and
stupefied her.

'No, my lady,' he said. 'Thank you much, but I prefer to let things be
as they have been. My father's name is mine in any case. You see, my
lady, you cared little for me when I was weak and helpless; why should I
come to you now I am strong? She, dear devoted soul [pointing to Milly],
tended me from my birth, watched over me, nursed me when I was ill, and
deprived herself of many a little comfort to push me on. I cannot love
another mother as I love her. She _is_ my mother, and I will always be
her son!' As he spoke he put his manly arm round Milly's neck, and
kissed her with the tenderest affection.

The agony of the poor Marchioness was pitiable. 'You kill me!' she said,
between her shaking sobs. 'Cannot you - love - me - too?'

'No, my lady. If I must say it, you were ashamed of my poor father, who
was a sincere and honest man; therefore, I am ashamed of you.'

Nothing would move him; and the suffering woman at last gasped,
'Cannot - oh, cannot you give one kiss to me - as you did to her? It is
not much - it is all I ask - all!'

'Certainly,' he replied.

He kissed her coldly, and the painful scene came to an end. That day was
the beginning of death to the unfortunate Marchioness of Stonehenge. It
was in the perverseness of her human heart that his denial of her should
add fuel to the fire of her craving for his love. How long afterwards
she lived I do not know with any exactness, but it was no great length of
time. That anguish that is sharper than a serpent's tooth wore her out
soon. Utterly reckless of the world, its ways, and its opinions, she
allowed her story to become known; and when the welcome end supervened
(which, I grieve to say, she refused to lighten by the consolations of
religion), a broken heart was the truest phrase in which to sum up its

* * * * *

The rural dean having concluded, some observations upon his tale were
made in due course. The sentimental member said that Lady Caroline's
history afforded a sad instance of how an honest human affection will
become shamefaced and mean under the frost of class-division and social
prejudices. She probably deserved some pity; though her offspring,
before he grew up to man's estate, had deserved more. There was no
pathos like the pathos of childhood, when a child found itself in a world
where it was not wanted, and could not understand the reason why. A tale
by the speaker, further illustrating the same subject, though with
different results from the last, naturally followed.

By the Sentimental Member

Of all the romantic towns in Wessex, Wintoncester is probably the most
convenient for meditative people to live in; since there you have a
cathedral with a nave so long that it affords space in which to walk and
summon your remoter moods without continually turning on your heel, or
seeming to do more than take an afternoon stroll under cover from the
rain or sun. In an uninterrupted course of nearly three hundred steps
eastward, and again nearly three hundred steps westward amid those
magnificent tombs, you can, for instance, compare in the most leisurely
way the dry dustiness which ultimately pervades the persons of kings and
bishops with the damper dustiness that is usually the final shape of
commoners, curates, and others who take their last rest out of doors.
Then, if you are in love, you can, by sauntering in the chapels and
behind the episcopal chantries with the bright-eyed one, so steep and
mellow your ecstasy in the solemnities around, that it will assume a
rarer and finer tincture, even more grateful to the understanding, if not

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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 8 of 16)