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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesRhoda Fleming - Book 5 - Chapter 41
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Rhoda Fleming - Book 5 - Chapter 41 Post by :Amaranta720 Category :Long Stories Author :George Meredith Date :May 2012 Read :2524

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Rhoda Fleming - Book 5 - Chapter 41

BOOK V CHAPTER XLI

On the Monday evening, Master Gammon was at the station with the cart. Robert and Rhoda were a train later, but the old man seemed to be unaware of any delay, and mildly staring, received their apologies, and nodded. They asked him more than once whether all was well at the Farm; to which he replied that all was quite well, and that he was never otherwise. About half-an-hour after, on the road, a gradual dumb chuckle overcame his lower features. He flicked the horse dubitatively, and turned his head, first to Robert, next to Rhoda; and then he chuckled aloud:

"The last o' they mel'ns rotted yest'day afternoon!"

"Did they?" said Robert. "You'll have to get fresh seed, that's all."

Master Gammon merely showed his spirit to be negative.

"You've been playing the fool with the sheep," Robert accused him.

It hit the old man in a very tender part.

"I play the fool wi' ne'er a sheep alive, Mr. Robert. Animals likes their 'customed food, and don't like no other. I never changes my food, nor'd e'er a sheep, nor'd a cow, nor'd a bullock, if animals was masters. I'd as lief give a sheep beer, as offer him, free-handed--of my own will, that's to say--a mel'n. They rots."

Robert smiled, though he was angry. The delicious unvexed country-talk soothed Rhoda, and she looked fondly on the old man, believing that he could not talk on in his sedate way, if all were not well at home.

The hills of the beacon-ridge beyond her home, and the line of stunted firs, which she had named "the old bent beggarmen," were visible in the twilight. Her eyes flew thoughtfully far over them, with the feeling that they had long known what would come to her and to those dear to her, and the intense hope that they knew no more, inasmuch as they bounded her sight.

"If the sheep thrive," she ventured to remark, so that the comforting old themes might be kept up.

"That's the particular 'if!'" said Robert, signifying something that had to be leaped over.

Master Gammon performed the feat with agility.

"Sheep never was heartier," he pronounced emphatically.

"Lots of applications for melon-seed, Gammon?"

To this the veteran's tardy answer was: "More fools 'n one about, I reckon"; and Robert allowed him the victory implied by silence.

"And there's no news in Wrexby? none at all?" said Rhoda.

A direct question inevitably plunged Master Gammon so deep amid the soundings of his reflectiveness, that it was the surest way of precluding a response from him; but on this occasion his honest deliberation bore fruit.

"Squire Blancove, he's dead."

The name caused Rhoda to shudder.

"Found dead in 's bed, Sat'day morning," Master Gammon added, and, warmed upon the subject, went on: "He's that stiff, folks say, that stiff he is, he'll have to get into a rounded coffin: he's just like half a hoop. He was all of a heap, like. Had a fight with 's bolster, and got th' wust of it. But, be 't the seizure, or be 't gout in 's belly, he's gone clean dead. And he wunt buy th' Farm, nether. Shutters is all shut up at the Hall. He'll go burying about Wednesday. Men that drinks don't keep."

Rhoda struck at her brain to think in what way this death could work and show like a punishment of the heavens upon that one wrong-doer; but it was not manifest as a flame of wrath, and she laid herself open to the peace of the fields and the hedgeways stepping by. The farm-house came in sight, and friendly old Adam and Eve turning from the moon. She heard the sound of water. Every sign of peace was around the farm. The cows had been milked long since; the geese were quiet. There was nothing but the white board above the garden-gate to speak of the history lying in her heart.

They found the farmer sitting alone, shading his forehead. Rhoda kissed his cheeks and whispered for tidings of Dahlia.

"Go up to her," the farmer said.

Rhoda grew very chill. She went upstairs with apprehensive feet, and recognizing Mrs. Sumfit outside the door of Dahlia's room, embraced her, and heard her say that Dahlia had turned the key, and had been crying from mornings to nights. "It can't last," Mrs. Sumfit sobbed: "lonesome hysterics, they's death to come. She's falling into the trance. I'll go, for the sight o' me shocks her."

Rhoda knocked, waited patiently till her persistent repetition of her name gained her admission. She beheld her sister indeed, but not the broken Dahlia from whom she had parted. Dahlia was hard to her caress, and crying, "Has he come?" stood at bay, white-eyed, and looking like a thing strung with wires.

"No, dearest; he will not trouble you. Have no fear."

"Are you full of deceit?" said Dahlia, stamping her foot.

"I hope not, my sister."

Dahlia let fall a long quivering breath. She went to her bed, upon which her mother's Bible was lying, and taking it in her two hands, held it under Rhoda's lips.

"Swear upon that?"

"What am I to swear to, dearest?"

"Swear that he is not in the house."

"He is not, my own sister; believe me. It is no deceit. He is not. He will not trouble you. See; I kiss the Book, and swear to you, my beloved! I speak truth. Come to me, dear." Rhoda put her arms up entreatingly, but Dahlia stepped back.

"You are not deceitful? You are not cold? You are not inhuman? Inhuman! You are not? You are not? Oh, my God! Look at her!"

The toneless voice was as bitter for Rhoda to hear as the accusations. She replied, with a poor smile: "I am only not deceitful. Come, and see. You will not be disturbed."

"What am I tied to?" Dahlia struggled feebly as against a weight of chains. "Oh! what am I tied to? It's on me, tight like teeth. I can't escape. I can't breathe for it. I was like a stone when he asked me--marry him!--loved me! Some one preached--my duty! I am lost, I am lost! Why? you girl!--why?--What did you do? Why did you take my hand when I was asleep and hurry me so fast? What have I done to you? Why did you push me along?--I couldn't see where. I heard the Church babble. For you--inhuman! inhuman! What have I done to you? What have you to do with punishing sin? It's not sin. Let me be sinful, then. I am. I am sinful. Hear me. I love him; I love my lover, and," she screamed out, "he loves me!"

Rhoda now thought her mad.

She looked once at the rigid figure of her transformed sister, and sitting down, covered her eyes and wept.

To Dahlia, the tears were at first an acrid joy; but being weak, she fell to the bed, and leaned against it, forgetting her frenzy for a time.

"You deceived me," she murmured; and again, "You deceived me." Rhoda did not answer. In trying to understand why her sister should imagine it, she began to know that she had in truth deceived Dahlia. The temptation to drive a frail human creature to do the thing which was right, had led her to speak falsely for a good purpose. Was it not righteously executed? Away from the tragic figure in the room, she might have thought so, but the horror in the eyes and voice of this awakened Sacrifice, struck away the support of theoretic justification. Great pity for the poor enmeshed life, helpless there, and in a woman's worst peril,--looking either to madness, or to death, for an escape--drowned her reason in a heavy cloud of tears. Long on toward the stroke of the hour, Dahlia heard her weep, and she murmured on, "You deceived me;" but it was no more to reproach; rather, it was an exculpation of her reproaches. "You did deceive me, Rhoda." Rhoda half lifted her head; the slight tone of a change to tenderness swelled the gulfs of pity, and she wept aloud. Dahlia untwisted her feet, and staggered up to her, fell upon her shoulder, and called her, "My love!--good sister!" For a great mute space they clung together. Their lips met and they kissed convulsively. But when Dahlia had close view of Rhoda's face, she drew back, saying in an under-breath,--

"Don't cry. I see my misery when you cry."

Rhoda promised that she would check her tears, and they sat quietly, side by side, hand in hand. Mrs. Sumfit, outside, had to be dismissed twice with her fresh brews of supplicating tea and toast, and the cakes which, when eaten warm with good country butter and a sprinkle of salt, reanimate (as she did her utmost to assure the sisters through the closed door) humanity's distressed spirit. At times their hands interchanged a fervent pressure, their eyes were drawn to an equal gaze.

In the middle of the night Dahlia said: "I found a letter from Edward when I came here."

"Written--Oh, base man that he is!" Rhoda could not control the impulse to cry it out.

"Written before," said Dahlia, divining her at once. "I read it; did not cry. I have no tears. Will you see it? It is very short-enough; it said enough, and written before--" She crumpled her fingers in Rhoda's; Rhoda, to please her, saying "Yes," she went to the pillow of the bed, and drew the letter from underneath.

"I know every word," she said; "I should die if I repeated it. 'My wife before heaven,' it begins. So, I was his wife. I must have broken his heart--broken my husband's." Dahlia cast a fearful eye about her; her eyelids fluttered as from a savage sudden blow. Hardening her mouth to utter defiant spite: "My lover's," she cried. "He is. If he loves me and I love him, he is my lover, my lover, my lover! Nothing shall stop me from saying it--lover! and there is none to claim me but he. Oh, loathsome! What a serpent it is I've got round me! And you tell me God put it. Do you? Answer that; for I want to know, and I don't know where I am. I am lost! I am lost! I want to get to my lover. Tell me, Rhoda, you would curse me if I did. And listen to me. Let him open his arms to me, I go; I follow him as far as my feet will bear me. I would go if it lightened from heaven. If I saw up there the warning, 'You shall not!' I would go. But, look on me!" she smote contempt upon her bosom. "He would not call to such a thing as me. Me, now? My skin is like a toad's to him. I've become like something in the dust. I could hiss like adders. I am quite impenitent. I pray by my bedside, my head on my Bible, but I only say, 'Yes, yes; that's done; that's deserved, if there's no mercy.' Oh, if there is no mercy, that's deserved! I say so now. But this is what I say, Rhoda (I see nothing but blackness when I pray), and I say, 'Permit no worse!' I say, 'Permit no worse, or take the consequences.' He calls me his wife. I am his wife. And if--" Dahlia fell to speechless panting; her mouth was open; she made motion with her hands; horror, as of a blasphemy struggling to her lips, kept her dumb, but the prompting passion was indomitable.... "Read it," said her struggling voice; and Rhoda bent over the letter, reading and losing thought of each sentence as it passed. To Dahlia, the vital words were visible like evanescent blue gravelights. She saw them rolling through her sister's mind; and just upon the conclusion, she gave out, as in a chaunt: "And I who have sinned against my innocent darling, will ask her to pray with me that our future may be one, so that may make good to her what she has suffered, and to the God whom we worship, the offence I have committed."

Rhoda looked up at the pale penetrating eyes.

"Read. Have you read to the last?" said Dahlia. "Speak it. Let me hear you. He writes it.... Yes? you will not? 'Husband,' he says," and then she took up the sentences of the letter backwards to the beginning, pausing upon each one with a short moan, and smiting her bosom. "I found it here, Rhoda. I found his letter here when I came.. I came a dead thing, and it made me spring up alive. Oh, what bliss to be dead! I've felt nothing...nothing, for months." She flung herself on the bed, thrusting her handkerchief to her mouth to deaden the outcry. "I'm punished. I'm punished, because I did not trust to my darling. No, not for one year! Is it that since we parted? I am an impatient creature, and he does not reproach me. I tormented my own, my love, my dear, and he thought I--I was tired of our life together. No; he does not accuse me," Dahlia replied to her sister's unspoken feeling, with the shrewd divination which is passion's breathing space. "He accuses himself. He says it--utters it--speaks it 'I sold my beloved.' There is no guile in him. Oh, be just to us, Rhoda! Dearest," she came to Rhoda's side, "you did deceive me, did you not? You are a deceiver, my love?"

Rhoda trembled, and raising her eyelids, answered, "Yes."

"You saw him in the street that morning?"

Dahlia smiled a glittering tenderness too evidently deceitful in part, but quite subduing.

"You saw him, my Rhoda, and he said he was true to me, and sorrowful; and you told him, dear one, that I had no heart for him, and wished to go to hell--did you not, good Rhoda? Forgive me; I mean 'good;' my true, good Rhoda. Yes, you hate sin; it is dreadful; but you should never speak falsely to sinners, for that does not teach them to repent. Mind you never lie again. Look at me. I am chained, and I have no repentance in me. See me. I am nearer it...the other--sin, I mean. If that man comes...will he?"

"No--no!" Rhoda cried.

"If that man comes--"

"He will not come!"

"He cast me off at the church door, and said he had been cheated. Money! Oh, Edward!"

Dahlia drooped her head.

"He will keep away. You are safe," said Rhoda.

"Because, if no help comes, I am lost--I am lost for ever!"

"But help will come. I mean peace will come. We will read; we will work in the garden. You have lifted poor father up, my dear."

"Ah! that old man!" Dahlia sighed.

"He is our father."

"Yes, poor old man!" and Dahlia whispered: "I have no pity for him. If I am dragged away, I'm afraid I shall curse him. He seems a stony old man. I don't understand fathers. He would make me go away. He talks the Scriptures when he is excited. I'm afraid he would shut my Bible for me. Those old men know nothing of the hearts of women. Now, darling, go to your room."

Rhoda begged earnestly for permission to stay with her, but Dahlia said: "My nights are fevers. I can't have arms about me."

They shook hands when they separated, not kissing.

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BOOK V CHAPTER XLIIThree days passed quietly at the Farm, and each morning Dahlia came down to breakfast, and sat with the family at their meals; pale, with the mournful rim about her eyelids, but a patient figure. No questions were asked. The house was guarded from visitors, and on the surface the home was peaceful. On the Wednesday Squire Blancove was buried, when Master Gammon, who seldom claimed a holiday or specified an enjoyment of which he would desire to partake, asked leave to be spared for a couple of hours, that he might attend the ceremonious interment of one
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