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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesRhoda Fleming - Book 2 - Chapter 19
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Rhoda Fleming - Book 2 - Chapter 19 Post by :swatsweb Category :Long Stories Author :George Meredith Date :May 2012 Read :2363

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Rhoda Fleming - Book 2 - Chapter 19

BOOK II CHAPTER XIX

The night was warm with the new-fallen snow, though the stars sparkled coldly. A fleet of South-westerly rainclouds had been met in mid-sky by a sharp puff from due North, and the moisture had descended like a woven shroud, covering all the land, the house-tops, and the trees.

Young Harry Boulby was at sea, and this still weather was just what a mother's heart wished for him. The widow looked through her bed-room window and listened, as if the absolute stillness must beget a sudden cry. The thought of her boy made her heart revert to Robert. She was thinking of Robert when the muffled sound of a horse at speed caused her to look up the street, and she saw one coming--a horse without a rider. The next minute he was out of sight.

Mrs. Boulby stood terrified. The silence of the night hanging everywhere seemed to call on her for proof that she had beheld a real earthly spectacle, and the dead thump of the hooves on the snow-floor in passing struck a chill through her as being phantom-like. But she had seen a saddle on the horse, and the stirrups flying, and the horse looked affrighted. The scene was too earthly in its suggestion of a tale of blood. What if the horse were Robert's? She tried to laugh at her womanly fearfulness, and had almost to suppress a scream in doing so. There was no help for it but to believe her brandy as good and efficacious as her guests did, so she went downstairs and took a fortifying draught; after which her blood travelled faster, and the event galloped swiftly into the recesses of time, and she slept.

While the morning was still black, and the streets without a sign of life, she was aroused by a dream of some one knocking at her grave-stone. "Ah, that brandy!" she sighed. "This is what a poor woman has to pay for custom!" Which we may interpret as the remorseful morning confession of a guilt she had been the victim of over night. She knew that good brandy did not give bad dreams, and was self-convicted. Strange were her sensations when the knocking continued; and presently she heard a voice in the naked street below call in a moan, "Mother!"

"My darling!" she answered, divided in her guess at its being Harry or Robert.

A glance from the open window showed Robert leaning in the quaint old porch, with his head bound by a handkerchief; but he had no strength to reply to a question at that distance, and when she let him in he made two steps and dropped forward on the floor.

Lying there, he plucked at her skirts. She was shouting for help, but with her ready apprehension of the pride in his character, she knew what was meant by his broken whisper before she put her ear to his lips, and she was silent, miserable sight as was his feeble efforts to rise on an elbow that would not straighten.

His head was streaming with blood, and the stain was on his neck and chest. He had one helpless arm; his clothes were torn as from a fierce struggle.

"I'm quite sensible," he kept repeating, lest she should relapse into screams.

"Lord love you for your spirit!" exclaimed the widow, and there they remained, he like a winged eagle, striving to raise himself from time to time, and fighting with his desperate weakness. His face was to the ground; after a while he was still. In alarm the widow stooped over him: she feared that he had given up his last breath; but the candle-light showed him shaken by a sob, as it seemed to her, though she could scarce believe it of this manly fellow. Yet it proved true; she saw the very tears. He was crying at his helplessness.

"Oh, my darling boy!" she burst out; "what have they done to ye? the cowards they are! but do now have pity on a woman, and let me get some creature to lift you to a bed, dear. And don't flap at me with your hand like a bird that's shot. You're quite, quite sensible, I know; quite sensible, dear; but for my sake, Robert, my Harry's good friend, only for my sake, let yourself be a carried to a clean, nice bed, till I get Dr. Bean to you. Do, do."

Her entreaties brought on a succession of the efforts to rise, and at last, getting round on his back, and being assisted by the widow, he sat up against the wall. The change of posture stupified him with a dizziness. He tried to utter the old phrase, that he was sensible, but his hand beat at his forehead before the words could be shaped.

"What pride is when it's a man!" the widow thought, as he recommenced the grievous struggle to rise on his feet; now feeling them up to the knee with a questioning hand, and pausing as if in a reflective wonder, and then planting them for a spring that failed wretchedly; groaning and leaning backward, lost in a fit of despair, and again beginning, patient as an insect imprisoned in a circle.

The widow bore with his man's pride, until her nerves became afflicted by the character of his movements, which, as her sensations conceived them, were like those of a dry door jarring loose. She caught him in her arms: "It's let my back break, but you shan't fret to death there, under my eyes, proud or humble, poor dear," she said, and with a great pull she got him upright. He fell across her shoulder with so stiff a groan that for a moment she thought she had done him mortal injury.

"Good old mother," he said boyishly, to reassure her.

"Yes; and you'll behave to me like a son," she coaxed him.

They talked as by slow degrees the stairs were ascended.

"A crack o' the head, mother--a crack o' the head," said he.

"Was it the horse, my dear?"

"A crack o' the head, mother."

"What have they done to my boy Robert?"

"They've,"--he swung about humorously, weak as he was and throbbing with pain--"they've let out some of your brandy, mother...got into my head."

"Who've done it, my dear?"

"They've done it, mother."

"Oh, take care o' that nail at your foot; and oh, that beam to your poor poll--poor soul! he's been and hurt himself again. And did they do it to him? and what was it for?" she resumed in soft cajolery.

"They did it, because--"

"Yes, my dear; the reason for it?"

"Because, mother, they had a turn that way."

"Thanks be to Above for leaving your cunning in you, my dear," said the baffled woman, with sincere admiration. "And Lord be thanked, if you're not hurt bad, that they haven't spoilt his handsome face," she added.

In the bedroom, he let her partially undress him, refusing all doctor's aid, and commanding her to make no noise about him and then he lay down and shut his eyes, for the pain was terrible--galloped him and threw him with a shock--and galloped him and threw him again, whenever his thoughts got free for a moment from the dizzy aching.

"My dear," she whispered, "I'm going to get a little brandy."

She hastened away upon this mission.

He was in the same posture when she returned with bottle and glass.

She poured out some, and made much of it as a specific, and of the great things brandy would do; but he motioned his hand from it feebly, till she reproached him tenderly as perverse and unkind.

"Now, my dearest boy, for my sake--only for my sake. Will you? Yes, you will, my Robert!"

"No brandy, mother."

"Only one small thimbleful?"

"No more brandy for me!"

"See, dear, how seriously you take it, and all because you want the comfort."

"No brandy," was all he could say.

She looked at the label on the bottle. Alas! she knew whence it came, and what its quality. She could cheat herself about it when herself only was concerned--but she wavered at the thought of forcing it upon Robert as trusty medicine, though it had a pleasant taste, and was really, as she conceived, good enough for customers.

She tried him faintly with arguments in its favour; but his resolution was manifested by a deaf ear.

With a perfect faith in it she would, and she was conscious that she could, have raised his head and poured it down his throat. The crucial test of her love for Robert forbade the attempt. She burst into an uncontrollable fit of crying.

"Halloa! mother," said Robert, opening his eyes to the sad candlelight surrounding them.

"My darling boy! whom I do love so; and not to be able to help you! What shall I do--what shall I do!"

With a start, he cried, "Where's the horse!"

"The horse?"

"The old dad 'll be asking for the horse to-morrow."

"I saw a horse, my dear, afore I turned to my prayers at my bedside, coming down the street without his rider. He came like a rumble of deafness in my ears. Oh, my boy, I thought, Is it Robert's horse?--knowing you've got enemies, as there's no brave man has not got 'em--which is our only hope in the God of heaven!"

"Mother, punch my ribs."

He stretched himself flat for the operation, and shut his mouth.

"Hard, mother!--and quick!--I can't hold out long."

"Oh! Robert," moaned the petrified woman "strike you?"

"Straight in the ribs. Shut your fist and do it--quick."

"My dear!--my boy!--I haven't the heart to do it!"

"Ah!" Robert's chest dropped in; but tightening his muscles again, he said, "now do it--do it!"

"Oh! a poke at a poor fire puts it out, dear. And make a murderess of me, you call mother! Oh! as I love the name, I'll obey you, Robert. But!--there!"

"Harder, mother."

"There!--goodness forgive me!"

"Hard as you can--all's right."

"There!--and there!--oh!--mercy!"

"Press in at my stomach."

She nerved herself to do his bidding, and, following his orders, took his head in her hands, and felt about it. The anguish of the touch wrung a stifled scream from him, at which she screamed responsive. He laughed, while twisting with the pain.

"You cruel boy, to laugh at your mother," she said, delighted by the sound of safety in that sweet human laughter. "Hey! don't ye shake your brain; it ought to lie quiet. And here's the spot of the wicked blow--and him in love--as I know he is! What would she say if she saw him now? But an old woman's the best nurse--ne'er a doubt of it."

She felt him heavy on her arm, and knew that he had fainted. Quelling her first impulse to scream, she dropped him gently on the pillow, and rapped to rouse up her maid.

The two soon produced a fire and hot water, bandages, vinegar in a basin, and every crude appliance that could be thought of, the maid followed her mistress's directions with a consoling awe, for Mrs. Boulby had told her no more than that a man was hurt.

"I do hope, if it's anybody, it's that ther' Moody," said the maid.

"A pretty sort of a Christian you think yourself, I dare say," Mrs. Boulby replied.

"Christian or not, one can't help longin' for a choice, mum. We ain't all hands and knees."

"Better for you if you was," said the widow. "It's tongues, you're to remember, you're not to be. Now come you up after me--and you'll not utter a word. You'll stand behind the door to do what I tell you. You're a soldier's daughter, Susan, and haven't a claim to be excitable."

"My mother was given to faints," Susan protested on behalf of her possible weakness.

"You may peep." Thus Mrs. Boulby tossed a sop to her frail woman's nature.

But for her having been appeased by the sagacious accordance of this privilege, the maid would never have endured to hear Robert's voice in agony, and to think that it was really Robert, the beloved of Warbeach, who had come to harm. Her apprehensions not being so lively as her mistress's, by reason of her love being smaller, she was more terrified than comforted by Robert's jokes during the process of washing off the blood, cutting the hair from the wound, bandaging and binding up the head.

His levity seemed ghastly; and his refusal upon any persuasion to see a doctor quite heathenish, and a sign of one foredoomed.

She believed that his arm was broken, and smarted with wrath at her mistress for so easily taking his word to the contrary. More than all, his abjuration of brandy now when it would do him good to take it, struck her as an instance of that masculine insanity in the comprehension of which all women must learn to fortify themselves. There was much whispering in the room, inarticulate to her, before Mrs. Boulby came out; enjoining a rigorous silence, and stating that the patient would drink nothing but tea.

"He begged," she said half to herself, "to have the window blinds up in the morning, if the sun wasn't strong, for him to look on our river opening down to the ships."

"That looks as if he meant to live," Susan remarked.

"He!" cried the widow, "it's Robert Eccles. He'd stand on his last inch."

"Would he, now!" ejaculated Susan, marvelling at him, with no question as to what footing that might be.

"Leastways," the widow hastened to add, "if he thought it was only devils against him. I've heard him say, 'It's a fool that holds out against God, and a coward as gives in to the devil;' and there's my Robert painted by his own hand."

"But don't that bring him to this so often, Mum?" Susan ruefully inquired, joining teapot and kettle.

"I do believe he's protected," said the widow.

With the first morning light Mrs. Boulby was down at Warbeach Farm, and being directed to Farmer Eccles in the stables, she found the sturdy yeoman himself engaged in grooming Robert's horse.

"Well, Missis," he said, nodding to her; "you win, you see. I thought you would; I'd have sworn you would. Brandy's stronger than blood, with some of our young fellows."

"If you please, Mr. Eccles," she replied, "Robert's sending of me was to know if the horse was unhurt and safe."

"Won't his legs carry him yet, Missis?"

"His legs have been graciously spared, Mr. Eccles; it's his head."

"That's where the liquor flies, I'm told."

"Pray, Mr. Eccles, believe me when I declare he hasn't touched a drop of anything but tea in my house this past night."

"I'm sorry for that; I'd rather have him go to you. If he takes it, let him take it good; and I'm given to understand that you've a reputation that way. Just tell him from me, he's at liberty to play the devil with himself, but not with my beasts."

The farmer continued his labour.

"No, you ain't a hard man, surely," cried the widow. "Not when I say he was sober, Mr. Eccles; and was thrown, and made insensible?"

"Never knew such a thing to happen to him, Missis, and, what's more, I don't believe it. Mayhap you're come for his things: his Aunt Anne's indoors, and she'll give 'em up, and gladly. And my compliments to Robert, and the next time he fancies visiting Warbeach, he'd best forward a letter to that effect."

Mrs. Boulby curtseyed humbly. "You think bad of me, sir, for keeping a public; but I love your son as my own, and if I might presume to say so, Mr. Eccles, you will be proud of him too before you die. I know no more than you how he fell yesterday, but I do know he'd not been drinking, and have got bitter bad enemies."

"And that's not astonishing, Missis."

"No, Mr. Eccles; and a man who's brave besides being good soon learns that."

"Well spoken, Missis."

"Is Robert to hear he's denied his father's house?"

"I never said that, Mrs. Boulby. Here's my principle--My house is open to my blood, so long as he don't bring downright disgrace on it, and then any one may claim him that likes I won't give him money, because I know of a better use for it; and he shan't ride my beasts, because he don't know how to treat 'em. That's all."

"And so you keep within the line of your duty, sir," the widow summed his speech.

"So I hope to," said the farmer.

"There's comfort in that," she replied.

"As much as there's needed," said he.

The widow curtseyed again. "It's not to trouble you, sir, I called. Robert--thanks be to Above!--is not hurt serious, though severe."

"Where's he hurt?" the farmer asked rather hurriedly.

"In the head, it is."

"What have you come for?"

"First, his best hat."

"Bless my soul!" exclaimed the farmer. "Well, if that 'll mend his head it's at his service, I'm sure."

Sick at his heartlessness, the widow scattered emphasis over her concluding remarks. "First, his best hat, he wants; and his coat and clean shirt; and they mend the looks of a man, Mr. Eccles; and it's to look well is his object: for he's not one to make a moan of himself, and doctors may starve before he'd go to any of them. And my begging prayer to you is, that when you see your son, you'll not tell him I let you know his head or any part of him was hurt. I wish you good morning, Mr. Eccles."

"Good morning to you, Mrs. Boulby. You're a respectable woman."

"Not to be soaped," she murmured to herself in a heat.

The apparently medicinal articles of attire were obtained from Aunt Anne, without a word of speech on the part of that pale spinster. The deferential hostility between the two women acknowledged an intervening chasm. Aunt Anne produced a bundle, and placed the hat on it, upon which she had neatly pinned a tract, "The Drunkard's Awakening!" Mrs. Boulby glanced her eye in wrath across this superscription, thinking to herself, "Oh, you good people! how you make us long in our hearts for trouble with you." She controlled the impulse, and mollified her spirit on her way home by distributing stray leaves of the tract to the outlying heaps of rubbish, and to one inquisitive pig, who was looking up from a badly-smelling sty for what the heavens might send him.

She found Robert with his arm doubled over a basin, and Susan sponging cold water on it.

"No bones broken, mother!" he sang out. "I'm sound; all right again. Six hours have done it this time. Is it a thaw? You needn't tell me what the old dad has been saying. I shall be ready to breakfast in half an hour."

"Lord, what a big arm it is!" exclaimed the widow. "And no wonder, or how would you be a terror to men? You naughty boy, to think of stirring! Here you'll lie."

"Ah, will I?" said Robert: and he gave a spring, and sat upright in the bed, rather white with the effort, which seemed to affect his mind, for he asked dubiously, "What do I look like, mother?"

She brought him the looking-glass, and Susan being dismissed, he examined his features.

"Dear!" said the widow, sitting down on the bed; "it ain't much for me to guess you've got an appointment."

"At twelve o'clock, mother."

"With her?" she uttered softly.

"It's with a lady, mother."

"And so many enemies prowling about, Robert, my dear! Don't tell me they didn't fall upon you last night. I said nothing, but I'd swear it on the Book. Do you think you can go?"

"Why, mother, I go by my feelings, and there's no need to think at all, or God knows what I should think."

The widow shook her head. "Nothing 'll stop you, I suppose?"

"Nothing inside of me will, mother."

"Doesn't she but never mind. I've no right to ask, Robert; and if I have curiosity, it's about last night, and why you should let villains escape. But there's no accounting for a man's notions; only, this I say, and I do say it, Nic Sedgett, he's at the bottom of any mischief brewed against you down here. And last night Stephen Bilton, or somebody, declared that Nic Sedgett had been seen up at Fairly."

"Selling eggs, mother. Why shouldn't he? We mustn't complain of his getting an honest livelihood."

"He's black-blooded, Robert; and I never can understand why the Lord did not make him a beast in face. I'm told that creature's found pleasing by the girls."

"Ugh, mother, I'm not."

"She won't have you, Robert?"

He laughed. "We shall see to-day."

"You deceiving boy!" cried the widow; "and me not know it's Mrs. Lovell you're going to meet! and would to heaven she'd see the worth of ye, for it's a born lady you ought to marry."

"Just feel in my pockets, mother, and you won't be so ready with your talk of my marrying. And now I'll get up. I feel as if my legs had to learn over again how to bear me. The old dad, bless his heart! gave me sound wind and limb to begin upon, so I'm not easily stumped, you see, though I've been near on it once or twice in my life."

Mrs. Boulby murmured, "Ah! are you still going to be at war with those gentlemen, Robert?"

He looked at her steadily, while a shrewd smile wrought over his face, and then taking her hand, he said, "I'll tell you a little; you deserve it, and won't tattle. My curse is, I'm ashamed to talk about my feelings; but there's no shame in being fond of a girl, even if she refuses to have anything to say to you, is there? No, there isn't. I went with my dear old aunt's money to a farmer in Kent, and learnt farming; clear of the army first, by--But I must stop that burst of swearing. Half the time I've been away, I was there. The farmer's a good, sober, downhearted man--a sort of beaten Englishman, who don't know it, tough, and always backing. He has two daughters: one went to London, and came to harm, of a kind. The other I'd prick this vein for and bleed to death, singing; and she hates me! I wish she did. She thought me such a good young man! I never drank; went to bed early, was up at work with the birds. Mr. Robert Armstrong! That changeing of my name was like a lead cap on my head. I was never myself with it, felt hang-dog--it was impossible a girl could care for such a fellow as I was. Mother, just listen: she's dark as a gipsy. She's the faithfullest, stoutest-hearted creature in the world. She has black hair, large brown eyes; see her once! She's my mate. I could say to her, 'Stand there; take guard of a thing;' and I could be dead certain of her--she'd perish at her post. Is the door locked? Lock the door; I won't be seen when I speak of her. Well, never mind whether she's handsome or not. She isn't a lady; but she's my lady; she's the woman I could be proud of. She sends me to the devil! I believe a woman 'd fall in love with her cheeks, they are so round and soft and kindly coloured. Think me a fool; I am. And here am I, away from her, and I feel that any day harm may come to her, and she 'll melt, and be as if the devils of hell were mocking me. Who's to keep harm from her when I'm away? What can I do but drink and forget? Only now, when I wake up from it, I'm a crawling wretch at her feet. If I had her feet to kiss! I've never kissed her--never! And no man has kissed her. Damn my head! here's the ache coming on. That's my last oath, mother. I wish there was a Bible handy, but I'll try and stick to it without. My God! when I think of her, I fancy everything on earth hangs still and doubts what's to happen. I'm like a wheel, and go on spinning. Feel my pulse now. Why is it I can't stop it? But there she is, and I could crack up this old world to know what's coming. I was mild as milk all those days I was near her. My comfort is, she don't know me. And that's my curse too! If she did, she'd know as clear as day I'm her mate, her match, the man for her. I am, by heaven!--that's an oath permitted. To see the very soul I want, and to miss her! I'm down here, mother; she loves her sister, and I must learn where her sister's to be found. One of those gentlemen up at Fairly's the guilty man. I don't say which; perhaps I don't know. But oh, what a lot of lightnings I see in the back of my head!"

Robert fell back on the pillow. Mrs. Boulby wiped her eyes. Her feelings were overwhelmed with mournful devotion to the passionate young man; and she expressed them practically: "A rump-steak would never digest in his poor stomach!"

He seemed to be of that opinion too, for when, after lying till eleven, he rose and appeared at the breakfast-table, he ate nothing but crumbs of dry bread. It was curious to see his precise attention to the neatness of his hat and coat, and the nervous eye he cast upon the clock, while brushing and accurately fixing these garments. The hat would not sit as he was accustomed to have it, owing to the bruise on his head, and he stood like a woman petulant with her milliner before the glass; now pressing the hat down till the pain was insufferable, and again trying whether it presented him acceptably in the enforced style of his wearing it. He persisted in this, till Mrs. Boulby's exclamation of wonder admonished him of the ideas received by other eyes than his own. When we appear most incongruous, we are often exposing the key to our characters; and how much his vanity, wounded by Rhoda, had to do with his proceedings down at Warbeach, it were unfair to measure just yet, lest his finer qualities be cast into shade, but to what degree it affected him will be seen.

Mrs. Boulby's persuasions induced him to take a stout silver-topped walking-stick of her husband's, a relic shaped from the wood of the Royal George; leaning upon which rather more like a Naval pensioner than he would have cared to know, he went forth to his appointment with the lady.

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BOOK II CHAPTER XXThe park-sward of Fairly, white with snow, rolled down in long sweeps to the salt water: and under the last sloping oak of the park there was a gorse-bushed lane, green in Summer, but now bearing cumbrous blossom--like burdens of the crisp snow-fall. Mrs. Lovell sat on horseback here, and alone, with her gauntleted hand at her waist, charmingly habited in tone with the landscape. She expected a cavalier, and did not perceive the approach of a pedestrian, but bowed quietly when Robert lifted his hat. "They say you are mad. You see, I trust myself to you."
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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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