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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesRhoda Fleming - Book 2 - Chapter 14
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Rhoda Fleming - Book 2 - Chapter 14 Post by :Ronwag Category :Long Stories Author :George Meredith Date :May 2012 Read :3302

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Rhoda Fleming - Book 2 - Chapter 14

BOOK II CHAPTER XIV

The two were together, and all preliminary difficulties had been cleared for Robert to say what he had to say, in a manner to make the saying of it well-nigh impossible. And yet silence might be misinterpreted by her. He would have drawn her to his heart at one sign of tenderness. There came none. The girl was frightfully torn with a great wound of shame. She was the first to speak.

"Do you believe what father says of my sister?"

"That she--?" Robert swallowed the words. "No!" and he made a thunder with his fist.

"No!" She drank up the word. "You do not? No! You know that Dahlia is innocent?"

Rhoda was trembling with a look for the asseveration; her pale face eager as a cry for life; but the answer did not come at once hotly as her passion for it demanded. She grew rigid, murmuring faintly: "speak! Do speak!"

His eyes fell away from hers. Sweet love would have wrought in him to think as she thought, but she kept her heart closed from him, and he stood sadly judicial, with a conscience of his own, that would not permit him to declare Dahlia innocent, for he had long been imagining the reverse.

Rhoda pressed her hands convulsively, moaning, "Oh!" down a short deep breath.

"Tell me what has happened?" said Robert, made mad by that reproachful agony of her voice. "I'm in the dark. I'm not equal to you all. If Dahlia's sister wants one to stand up for her, and defend her, whatever she has done or not done, ask me. Ask me, and I'll revenge her. Here am I, and I know nothing, and you despise me because--don't think me rude or unkind. This hand is yours, if you will. Come, Rhoda. Or, let me hear the case, and I'll satisfy you as best I can. Feel for her? I feel for her as you do. You don't want me to stand a liar to your question? How can I speak?"

A woman's instinct at red heat pierces the partial disingenuousness which Robert could only have avoided by declaring the doubts he entertained. Rhoda desired simply to be supported by his conviction of her sister's innocence, and she had scorn of one who would not chivalrously advance upon the risks of right and wrong, and rank himself prime champion of a woman belied, absent, and so helpless. Besides, there was but one virtue possible in Rhoda's ideas, as regarded Dahlia: to oppose facts, if necessary, and have her innocent perforce, and fight to the death them that dared cast slander on the beloved head.

Her keen instinct served her so far.

His was alive when she refused to tell him what had taken place during their visit to London.

She felt that a man would judge evil of the circumstances. Her father and her uncle had done so: she felt that Robert would. Love for him would have prompted her to confide in him absolutely. She was not softened by love; there was no fire on her side to melt and make them run in one stream, and they could not meet.

"Then, if you will not tell me," said Robert, "say what you think of your father's proposal? He meant that I may ask you to be my wife. He used to fancy I cared for your sister. That's false. I care for her--yes; as my sister too; and here is my hand to do my utmost for her, but I love you, and I've loved you for some time. I'd be proud to marry you and help on with the old farm. You don't love me yet--which is a pretty hard thing for me to see to be certain of. But I love you, and I trust you. I like the stuff you're made of--and nice stuff I'm talking to a young woman," he added, wiping his forehead at the idea of the fair and flattering addresses young women expect when they are being wooed.

As it was, Rhoda listened with savage contempt of his idle talk. Her brain was beating at the mystery and misery wherein Dahlia lay engulfed. She had no understanding for Robert's sentimentality, or her father's requisition. Some answer had to be given, and she said,--

"I'm not likely to marry a man who supposes he has anything to pardon."

"I don't suppose it," cried Robert.

"You heard what father said."

"I heard what he said, but I don't think the same. What has Dahlia to do with you?"

He was proceeding to rectify this unlucky sentence. All her covert hostility burst out on it.

"My sister?--what has my sister to do with me?--you mean!--you mean--you can only mean that we are to be separated and thought of as two people; and we are one, and will be till we die. I feel my sister's hand in mine, though she's away and lost. She is my darling for ever and ever. We're one!"

A spasm of anguish checked the girl.

"I mean," Robert resumed steadily, "that her conduct, good or bad, doesn't touch you. If it did, it'd be the same to me. I ask you to take me for your husband. Just reflect on what your father said, Rhoda."

The horrible utterance her father's lips had been guilty of flashed through her, filling her with mastering vindictiveness, now that she had a victim.

"Yes! I'm to take a husband to remind me of what he said."

Robert eyed her sharpened mouth admiringly; her defence of her sister had excited his esteem, wilfully though she rebutted his straightforward earnestness and he had a feeling also for the easy turns of her neck, and the confident poise of her figure.

"Ha! well!" he interjected, with his eyebrows queerly raised, so that she could make nothing of his look. It seemed half maniacal, it was so ridged with bright eagerness.

"By heaven! the task of taming you--that's the blessing I'd beg for in my prayers! Though you were as wild as a cat of the woods, by heaven! I'd rather have the taming of you than go about with a leash of quiet"--he checked himself--"companions."

Such was the sudden roll of his tongue, that she was lost in the astounding lead he had taken, and stared.

"You're the beauty to my taste, and devil is what I want in a woman! I can make something out of a girl with a temper like yours. You don't know me, Miss Rhoda. I'm what you reckon a good young man. Isn't that it?"

Robert drew up with a very hard smile.

"I would to God I were! Mind, I feel for you about your sister. I like you the better for holding to her through thick and thin. But my sheepishness has gone, and I tell you I'll have you whether you will or no. I can help you and you can help me. I've lived here as if I had no more fire in me than old Gammon snoring on his pillow up aloft; and who kept me to it? Did you see I never touched liquor? What did you guess from that?--that I was a mild sort of fellow? So I am: but I haven't got that reputation in other parts. Your father 'd like me to marry you, and I'm ready. Who kept me to work, so that I might learn to farm, and be a man, and be able to take a wife? I came here--I'll tell you how. I was a useless dog. I ran from home and served as a trooper. An old aunt of mine left me a little money, which just woke me up and gave me a lift of what conscience I had, and I bought myself out.

"I chanced to see your father's advertisement--came, looked at you all, and liked you--brought my traps and settled among you, and lived like a good young man. I like peace and orderliness, I find. I always thought I did, when I was dancing like mad to hell. I know I do now, and you're the girl to keep me to it. I've learnt that much by degrees. With any other, I should have been playing the fool, and going my old ways, long ago. I should have wrecked her, and drunk to forget. You're my match. By-and-by you'll know, me yours! You never gave me, or anybody else that I've seen, sly sidelooks.

"Come! I'll speak out now I'm at work. I thought you at some girl's games in the Summer. You went out one day to meet a young gentleman. Offence or no offence, I speak and you listen. You did go out. I was in love with you then, too. I saw London had been doing its mischief. I was down about it. I felt that he would make nothing of you, but I chose to take the care of you, and you've hated me ever since.

"That Mr. Algernon Blancove's a rascal. Stop! You'll say as much as you like presently. I give you a warning--the man's a rascal. I didn't play spy on your acts, but your looks. I can read a face like yours, and it's my home, my home!--by heaven, it is. Now, Rhoda, you know a little more of me. Perhaps I'm more of a man than you thought. Marry another, if you will; but I'm the man for you, and I know it, and you'll go wrong if you don't too. Come! let your father sleep well. Give me your hand."

All through this surprising speech of Robert's, which was a revelation of one who had been previously dark to her, she had steeled her spirit as she felt herself being borne upon unexpected rapids, and she marvelled when she found her hand in his.

Dismayed, as if caught in a trap, she said,--

"You know I've no love for you at all."

"None--no doubt," he answered.

The fit of verbal energy was expended, and he had become listless, though he looked frankly at her and assumed the cheerfulness which was failing within him.

"I wish to remain as I am," she faltered, surprised again by the equally astonishing recurrence of humility, and more spiritually subdued by it. "I've no heart for a change. Father will understand. I am safe."

She ended with a cry: "Oh! my dear, my own sister! I wish you were safe. Get her here to me and I'll do what I can, if you're not hard on her. She's so beautiful, she can't do wrong. My Dahlia's in some trouble. Mr. Robert, you might really be her friend?"

"Drop the Mister," said Robert.

"Father will listen to you," she pleaded. "You won't leave us? Tell him you know I am safe. But I haven't a feeling of any kind while my sister's away. I will call you Robert, if you like." She reached her hand forth.

"That's right," he said, taking it with a show of heartiness: "that's a beginning, I suppose."

She shrank a little in his sensitive touch, and he added: "Oh never fear. I've spoken out, and don't do the thing too often. Now you know me, that's enough. I trust you, so trust me. I'll talk to your father. I've got a dad of my own, who isn't so easily managed. You and I, Rhoda--we're about the right size for a couple. There--don't be frightened! I was only thinking--I'll let go your hand in a minute. If Dahlia's to be found, I'll find her. Thank you for that squeeze. You'd wake a dead man to life, if you wanted to. To-morrow I set about the business. That's settled. Now your hand's loose. Are you going to say good night? You must give me your hand again for that. What a rough fellow I must seem to you! Different from the man you thought I was? I'm just what you choose to make me, Rhoda; remember that. By heaven! go at once, for you're an armful--"

She took a candle and started for the door.

"Aha! you can look fearful as a doe. Out! make haste!"

In her hurry at his speeding gestures, the candle dropped; she was going to pick it up, but as he approached, she stood away frightened.

"One kiss, my girl," he said. "Don't keep me jealous as fire. One! and I'm a plighted man. One!--or I shall swear you know what kisses are. Why did you go out to meet that fellow? Do you think there's no danger in it? Doesn't he go about boasting of it now, and saying--that girl! But kiss me and I'll forget it; I'll forgive you. Kiss me only once, and I shall be certain you don't care for him. That's the thought maddens me outright. I can't bear it now I've seen you look soft. I'm stronger than you, mind." He caught her by the waist.

"Yes," Rhoda gasped, "you are. You are only a brute."

"A brute's a lucky dog, then, for I've got you!"

"Will you touch me?"

"You're in my power."

"It's a miserable thing, Robert."

"Why don't you struggle, my girl? I shall kiss you in a minute."

"You're never my friend again."

"I'm not a gentleman, I suppose!"

"Never! after this."

"It isn't done. And first you're like a white rose, and next you're like a red. Will you submit?"

"Oh! shame!" Rhoda uttered.

"Because I'm not a gentleman?"

"You are not."

"So, if I could make you a lady--eh? the lips 'd be ready in a trice. You think of being made a lady--a lady!"

His arm relaxed in the clutch of her figure.

She got herself free, and said: "We saw Mr. Blancove at the theatre with Dahlia."

It was her way of meeting his accusation that she had cherished an ambitious feminine dream.

He, to hide a confusion that had come upon him, was righting the fallen candle.

"Now I know you can be relied on; you can defend yourself," he said, and handed it to her, lighted. "You keep your kisses for this or that young gentleman. Quite right. You really can defend yourself. That's all I was up to. So let us hear that you forgive me. The door's open. You won't be bothered by me any more; and don't hate me overmuch."

"You might have learned to trust me without insulting me, Robert," she said.

"Do you fancy I'd take such a world of trouble for a kiss of your lips, sweet as they are?"

His blusterous beginning ended in a speculating glance at her mouth.

She saw it would be wise to accept him in his present mood, and go; and with a gentle "Good night," that might sound like pardon, she passed through the doorway.

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BOOK II CHAPTER XVIIIA single night at the Pilot Inn had given life and vigour to Robert's old reputation in Warbeach village, as the stoutest of drinkers and dear rascals throughout a sailor-breeding district Dibdin was still thundered in the ale-house, and manhood in a great degree measured by the capacity to take liquor on board, as a ship takes ballast. There was a profound affectation of deploring the sad fact that he drank as hard as ever, among the men, and genuine pity expressed for him by the women of Warbeach; but his fame was fresh again. As the
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BOOK II CHAPTER XIIIRobert was to drive to the station to meet Rhoda and her father returning from London, on a specified day. He was eager to be asking cheerful questions of Dahlia's health and happiness, so that he might dispel the absurd general belief that he had ever loved the girl, and was now regretting her absence; but one look at Rhoda's face when she stepped from the railway carriage kept him from uttering a word on that subject, and the farmer's heavier droop and acceptance of a helping hand into the cart, were signs of bad import. Mr. Fleming
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