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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesRhoda Fleming - Book 1 - Chapter 8
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Rhoda Fleming - Book 1 - Chapter 8 Post by :globe Category :Long Stories Author :George Meredith Date :May 2012 Read :2753

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Rhoda Fleming - Book 1 - Chapter 8

BOOK I CHAPTER VIII

That is Wrexby Hall, upon the hill between Fenhurst and Wrexby: the white square mansion, with the lower drawing-room windows one full bow of glass against the sunlight, and great single trees spotting the distant green slopes. From Queen Anne's Farm you could read the hour by the stretching of their shadows. Squire Blancove, who lived there, was an irascible, gouty man, out of humour with his time, and beginning, alas for him! to lose all true faith in his Port, though, to do him justice, he wrestled hard with this great heresy. His friends perceived the decay in his belief sooner than he did himself. He was sour in the evening as in the morning. There was no chirp in him when the bottle went round. He had never one hour of a humane mood to be reckoned on now. The day, indeed, is sad when we see the skeleton of the mistress by whom we suffer, but cannot abandon her. The squire drank, knowing that the issue would be the terrific, curse-begetting twinge in his foot; but, as he said, he was a man who stuck to his habits. It was over his Port that he had quarrelled with his rector on the subject of hopeful Algernon, and the system he adopted with that young man. This incident has something to do with Rhoda's story, for it was the reason why Mrs. Lovell went to Wrexby Church, the spirit of that lady leading her to follow her own impulses, which were mostly in opposition. So, when perchance she visited the Hall, she chose not to accompany the squire and his subservient guests to Fenhurst, but made a point of going down to the unoccupied Wrexby pew. She was a beauty, and therefore powerful; otherwise her act of nonconformity would have produced bad blood between her and the squire.

It was enough to have done so in any case; for now, instead of sitting at home comfortably, and reading off the week's chronicle of sport while he nursed his leg, the unfortunate gentleman had to be up and away to Fenhurst every Sunday morning, or who would have known that the old cause of his general abstention from Sabbath services lay in the detestable doctrine of Wrexby's rector?

Mrs. Lovell was now at the Hall, and it was Sunday morning after breakfast. The lady stood like a rival head among the other guests, listening, gloved and bonneted, to the bells of Wrexby, West of the hills, and of Fenhurst, Northeast. The squire came in to them, groaning over his boots, cross with his fragile wife, and in every mood for satire, except to receive it.

"How difficult it is to be gouty and good!" murmured Mrs. Lovell to the person next her.

"Well," said the squire, singling out his enemy, "you're going to that fellow, I suppose, as usual--eh?"

"Not 'as usual,'" replied Mrs. Lovell, sweetly; "I wish it were!"

"Wish it were, do you?--you find him so entertaining? Has he got to talking of the fashions?"

"He talks properly; I don't ask for more." Mrs. Lovell assumed an air of meekness under persecution.

"I thought you were Low Church."

"Lowly of the Church, I trust you thought," she corrected him. "But, for that matter, any discourse, plainly delivered, will suit me."

"His elocution's perfect," said the squire; "that is, before dinner."

"I have only to do with him before dinner, you know."

"Well, I've ordered a carriage out for you."

"That is very honourable and kind."

"It would be kinder if I contrived to keep you away from the fellow."

"Would it not be kinder to yourself," Mrs. Lovell swam forward to him in all tenderness, taking his hands, and fixing the swimming blue of her soft eyes upon him pathetically, "if you took your paper and your slippers, and awaited our return?"

The squire felt the circulating smile about the room. He rebuked the woman's audacity with a frown; "Tis my duty to set an example," he said, his gouty foot and irritable temper now meeting in a common fire.

"Since you are setting an example," rejoined the exquisite widow, "I have nothing more to say."

The squire looked what he dared not speak. A woman has half, a beauty has all, the world with her when she is self-contained, and holds her place; and it was evident that Mrs. Lovell was not one to abandon her advantages.

He snapped round for a victim, trying his wife first. Then his eyes rested upon Algernon.

"Well, here we are; which of us will you take?" he asked Mrs. Lovell in blank irony.

"I have engaged my cavalier, who is waiting, and will be as devout as possible." Mrs. Lovell gave Algernon a smile.

"I thought I hit upon the man," growled the squire. "You're going in to Wrexby, sir! Oh, go, by all means, and I shan't be astonished at what comes of it. Like teacher, like pupil!"

"There!" Mrs. Lovell gave Algernon another smile. "You have to bear the sins of your rector, as well as your own. Can you support it?"

The flimsy fine dialogue was a little above Algernon's level in the society of ladies; but he muttered, bowing, that he would endeavour to support it, with Mrs. Lovell's help, and this did well enough; after which, the slight strain on the intellects of the assemblage relaxed, and ordinary topics were discussed. The carriages came round to the door; gloves, parasols, and scent-bottles were securely grasped; whereupon the squire, standing bare-headed on the steps, insisted upon seeing the party of the opposition off first, and waited to hand Mrs. Lovell into her carriage, an ironic gallantry accepted by the lady with serenity befitting the sacred hour.

"Ah! my pencil, to mark the text for you, squire," she said, taking her seat; and Algernon turned back at her bidding, to get a pencil; and she, presenting a most harmonious aspect in the lovely landscape, reclined in the carriage as if, like the sweet summer air, she too were quieted by those holy bells, while the squire stood, fuming, bareheaded, and with boiling blood, just within the bounds of decorum on the steps. She was more than his match.

She was more than a match for most; and it was not a secret. Algernon knew it as well as Edward, or any one. She was a terror to the soul of the youth, and an attraction. Her smile was the richest flattery he could feel; the richer, perhaps, from his feeling it to be a thing impossible to fix. He had heard tales of her; he remembered Edward's warning; but he was very humbly sitting with her now, and very happy.

"I'm in for it," he said to his fair companion; "no cheque for me next quarter, and no chance of an increase. He'll tell me I've got a salary. A salary! Good Lord! what a man comes to! I've done for myself with the squire for a year."

"You must think whether you have compensation," said the lady, and he received it in a cousinly squeeze of his hand.

He was about to raise the lank white hand to his lips.

"Ah!" she said, "there would be no compensation to me, if that were seen;" and her dainty hand was withdrawn. "Now, tell me," she changed her tone. "How do the loves prosper?"

Algernon begged her not to call them 'loves.' She nodded and smiled.

"Your artistic admirations," she observed. "I am to see her in church, am I not? Only, my dear Algy, don't go too far. Rustic beauties are as dangerous as Court Princesses. Where was it you saw her first?"

"At the Bank," said Algernon.

"Really! at the Bank! So your time there is not absolutely wasted. What brought her to London, I wonder?"

"Well, she has an old uncle, a queer old fellow, and he's a sort of porter--money porter--in the Bank, awfully honest, or he might half break it some fine day, if he chose to cut and run. She's got a sister, prettier than this girl, the fellows say; I've never seen her. I expect I've seen a portrait of her, though."

"Ah!" Mrs. Lovell musically drew him on. "Was she dark, too?"

"No, she's fair. At least, she is in her portrait."

"Brown hair; hazel eyes?"

"Oh--oh! You guess, do you?"

"I guess nothing, though it seems profitable. That Yankee betting man 'guesses,' and what heaps of money he makes by it!"

"I wish I did," Algernon sighed. "All my guessing and reckoning goes wrong. I'm safe for next Spring, that's one comfort. I shall make twenty thousand next Spring."

"On Templemore?"

"That's the horse. I've got a little on Tenpenny Nail as well. But I'm quite safe on Templemore; unless the Evil Principle comes into the field."

"Is he so sure to be against you, if he does appear?" said Mrs. Lovell.

"Certain!" ejaculated Algernon, in honest indignation.

"Well, Algy, I don't like to have him on my side. Perhaps I will take a share in your luck, to make it--? to make it?"--She played prettily as a mistress teasing her lap-dog to jump for a morsel; adding: "Oh! Algy, you are not a Frenchman. To make it divine, sir! you have missed your chance."

"There's one chance I shouldn't like to miss," said the youth.

"Then, do not mention it," she counselled him. "And, seriously, I will take a part of your risk. I fear I am lucky, which is ruinous. We will settle that, by-and-by. Do you know, Algy, the most expensive position in the world is a widow's."

"You needn't be one very long," growled he.

"I'm so wretchedly fastidious, don't you see? And it's best not to sigh when we're talking of business, if you'll take me for a guide. So, the old man brought this pretty rustic Miss Rhoda to the Bank?"

"Once," said Algernon. "Just as he did with her sister. He's proud of his nieces; shows them and then hides them. The fellows at the Bank never saw her again."

"Her name is--?"

"Dahlia."

"Ah, yes!--Dahlia. Extremely pretty. There are brown dahlias--dahlias of all colours. And the portrait of this fair creature hangs up in your chambers in town?"

"Don't call them my chambers," Algernon protested.

"Your cousin's, if you like. Probably Edward happened to be at the Bank when fair Dahlia paid her visit. Once seems to have been enough for both of you."

Algernon was unread in the hearts of women, and imagined that Edward's defection from Mrs. Lovell's sway had deprived him of the lady's sympathy and interest in his fortunes.

"Poor old Ned's in some scrape, I think," he said.

"Where is he?" the lady asked, languidly.

"Paris."

"Paris? How very odd! And out of the season, in this hot weather. It's enough to lead me to dream that he has gone over--one cannot realize why."

"Upon my honour!" Algernon thumped on his knee; "by jingo!" he adopted a less compromising interjection; "Ned's fool enough. My idea is, he's gone and got married."

Mrs. Lovell was lying back with the neglectful grace of incontestable beauty; not a line to wrinkle her smooth soft features. For one sharp instant her face was all edged and puckered, like the face of a fair witch. She sat upright.

"Married! But how can that be when we none of us have heard a word of it?"

"I daresay you haven't," said Algernon; "and not likely to. Ned's the closest fellow of my acquaintance. He hasn't taken me into his confidence, you maybe sure; he knows I'm too leaky. There's no bore like a secret! I've come to my conclusion in this affair by putting together a lot of little incidents and adding them up. First, I believe he was at the Bank when that fair girl was seen there. Secondly, from the description the fellows give of her, I should take her to be the original of the portrait. Next, I know that Rhoda has a fair sister who has run for it. And last, Rhoda has had a letter from her sister, to say she's away to the Continent and is married. Ned's in Paris. Those are my facts, and I give you my reckoning of them."

Mrs. Lovell gazed at Algernon for one long meditative moment.

"Impossible," she exclaimed. "Edward has more brains than heart." And now the lady's face was scarlet. "How did this Rhoda, with her absurd name, think of meeting you to tell you such stuff? Indeed, there's a simplicity in some of these young women--" She said the remainder to herself.

"She's really very innocent and good," Algernon defended Rhoda, "she is. There isn't a particle of nonsense in her. I first met her in town, as I stated, at the Bank; just on the steps, and we remembered I had called a cab for her a little before; and I met her again by accident yesterday."

"You are only a boy in their hands, my cousin Algy!" said Mrs. Lovell.

Algernon nodded with a self-defensive knowingness. "I fancy there's no doubt her sister has written to her that she's married. It's certain she has. She's a blunt sort of girl; not one to lie, not even for a sister or a lover, unless she had previously made up her mind to it. In that case, she wouldn't stick at much."

"But, do you know," said Mrs. Lovell--"do you know that Edward's father would be worse than yours over such an act of folly? He would call it an offence against common sense, and have no mercy for it. He would be vindictive on principle. This story of yours cannot be true. Nothing reconciles it."

"Oh, Sir Billy will be rusty; that stands to reason," Algernon assented. "It mayn't be true. I hope it isn't. But Ned has a madness for fair women. He'd do anything on earth for them. He loses his head entirely."

"That he may have been imprudent--" Mrs. Lovell thus blushingly hinted at the lesser sin of his deceiving and ruining the girl.

"Oh, it needn't be true," said Algernon; and with meaning, "Who's to blame if it is?"

Mrs. Lovell again reddened. She touched Algernon's fingers.

"His friends mustn't forsake him, in any case."

"By Jove! you are the right sort of woman," cried Algernon.

It was beyond his faculties to divine that her not forsaking of Edward might haply come to mean something disastrous to him. The touch of Mrs. Lovell's hand made him forget Rhoda in a twinkling. He detained it, audaciously, even until she frowned with petulance and stamped her foot.

There was over her bosom a large cameo-brooch, representing a tomb under a palm-tree, and the figure of a veiled woman with her head bowed upon the tomb. This brooch was falling, when Algernon caught it. The pin tore his finger, and in the energy of pain he dashed the brooch to her feet, with immediate outcries of violent disgust at himself and exclamations for pardon. He picked up the brooch. It was open. A strange, discoloured, folded substance lay on the floor of the carriage. Mrs. Lovell gazed down at it, and then at him, ghastly pale. He lifted it by one corner, and the diminutive folded squares came out, revealing a strip of red-stained handkerchief.

Mrs. Lovell grasped it, and thrust it out of sight.

She spoke as they approached the church-door: "Mention nothing of this to a soul, or you forfeit my friendship for ever."

When they alighted, she was smiling in her old affable manner.

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