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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesRhoda Fleming - Book 5 - Chapter 42
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Rhoda Fleming - Book 5 - Chapter 42 Post by :Amaranta720 Category :Long Stories Author :George Meredith Date :May 2012 Read :2644

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Rhoda Fleming - Book 5 - Chapter 42

BOOK V CHAPTER XLII

Three 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 to whom a sort of vagrant human sentiment of clanship had made him look up, as to the chief gentleman of the district, and therefore one having claims on his respect. A burial had great interest for the old man.

"I'll be home for dinner; it'll gi'e me an appetite," Master Gammon said solemnly, and he marched away in his serious Sunday hat and careful coat, blither than usual.

After his departure, Mrs. Sumfit sat and discoursed on deaths and burials, the certain end of all: at least, she corrected herself, the deaths were. The burials were not so certain. Consequently, we might take the burials, as they were a favour, to be a blessing, except in the event of persons being buried alive. She tried to make her hearers understand that the idea of this calamity had always seemed intolerable to her, and told of numerous cases which, the coffin having been opened, showed by the convulsed aspect of the corpse, or by spots of blood upon the shroud, that the poor creature had wakened up forlorn, "and not a kick allowed to him, my dears."

"It happens to women, too, does it not, mother?" said Dahlia.

"They're most subject to trances, my sweet. From always imitatin' they imitates their deaths at last; and, oh!" Mrs. Sumfit was taken with nervous chokings of alarm at the thought. "Alone--all dark! and hard wood upon your chest, your elbows, your nose, your toes, and you under heaps o' gravel! Not a breath for you, though you snap and catch for one--worse than a fish on land."

"It's over very soon, mother," said Dahlia.

"The coldness of you young women! Yes; but it's the time--you feeling, trying for air; it's the horrid 'Oh, dear me!' You set your mind on it!"

"I do," said Dahlia. "You see coffin-nails instead of stars. You'd give the world to turn upon one side. You can't think. You can only hate those who put you there. You see them taking tea, saying prayers, sleeping in bed, putting on bonnets, walking to church, kneading dough, eating--all at once, like the firing of a gun. They're in one world; you're in another."

"Why, my goodness, one'd say she'd gone through it herself," ejaculated Mrs. Sumfit, terrified.

Dahlia sent her eyes at Rhoda.

"I must go and see that poor man covered." Mrs. Sumfit succumbed to a fit of resolution much under the pretence that it had long been forming.

"Well, and mother," said Dahlia, checking her, "promise me. Put a feather on my mouth; put a glass to my face, before you let them carry me out. Will you? Rhoda promises. I have asked her."

"Oh! the ideas of this girl!" Mrs. Sumfit burst out. "And looking so, as she says it. My love, you didn't mean to die?"

Dahlia soothed her, and sent her off.

"I am buried alive!" she said. "I feel it all--the stifling! the hopeless cramp! Let us go and garden. Rhoda, have you got laudanum in the house?"

Rhoda shook her head, too sick at heart to speak. They went into the garden, which was Dahlia's healthfullest place. It seemed to her that her dead mother talked to her there. That was not a figure of speech, when she said she felt buried alive. She was in the state of sensational delusion. There were times when she watched her own power of motion curiously: curiously stretched out her hands, and touched things, and moved them. The sight was convincing, but the shudder came again. In a frame less robust the brain would have given way. It was the very soundness of the brain which, when her blood was a simple tide of life in her veins, and no vital force, had condemned her to see the wisdom and the righteousness of the act of sacrifice committed by her, and had urged her even up to the altar. Then the sudden throwing off of the mask by that man to whom she had bound herself, and the reading of Edward's letter of penitence and love, thwarted reason, but without blinding or unsettling it. Passion grew dominant; yet against such deadly matters on all sides had passion to strive, that, under a darkened sky, visibly chained, bound down, and hopeless, she felt between-whiles veritably that she was a living body buried. Her senses had become semi-lunatic.

She talked reasonably; and Rhoda, hearing her question and answer at meal-times like a sane woman, was in doubt whether her sister wilfully simulated a partial insanity when they were alone together. Now, in the garden, Dahlia said: "All those flowers, my dear, have roots in mother and me. She can't feel them, for her soul's in heaven. But mine is down there. The pain is the trying to get your soul loose. It's the edge of a knife that won't cut through. Do you know that?"

Rhoda said, as acquiescingly as she could, "Yes."

"Do you?" Dahlia whispered. "It's what they call the 'agony.' Only, to go through it in the dark, when you are all alone! boarded round! you will never know that. And there's an angel brings me one of mother's roses, and I smell it. I see fields of snow; and it's warm there, and no labour for breath. I see great beds of flowers; I pass them like a breeze. I'm shot, and knock on the ground, and they bury me for dead again. Indeed, dearest, it's true."

She meant, true as regarded her sensations. Rhoda could barely give a smile for response; and Dahlia's intelligence being supernaturally active, she read her sister's doubt, and cried out,--

"Then let me talk of him!"

It was the fiery sequence to her foregone speech, signifying that if her passion had liberty to express itself, she could clear understandings. But even a moment's free wing to passion renewed the blinding terror within her. Rhoda steadied her along the walks, praying for the time to come when her friends, the rector and his wife, might help in the task of comforting this poor sister. Detestation of the idea of love made her sympathy almost deficient, and when there was no active work to do in aid, she was nearly valueless, knowing that she also stood guilty of a wrong.

The day was very soft and still. The flowers gave light for light. They heard through the noise of the mill-water the funeral bell sound. It sank in Rhoda like the preaching of an end that was promise of a beginning, and girdled a distancing land of trouble. The breeze that blew seemed mercy. To live here in forgetfulness with Dahlia was the limit of her desires. Perhaps, if Robert worked among them, she would gratefully give him her hand. That is, if he said not a word of love.

Master Gammon and Mrs. Sumfit were punctual in their return near the dinnerhour; and the business of releasing the dumplings and potatoes, and spreading out the cold meat and lettuces, restrained for some period the narrative of proceedings at the funeral. Chief among the incidents was, that Mrs. Sumfit had really seen, and only wanted, by corroboration of Master Gammon, to be sure she had positively seen, Anthony Hackbut on the skirts of the funeral procession. Master Gammon, however, was no supporter of conjecture. What he had thought he had thought; but that was neither here nor there. He would swear to nothing that he had not touched;--eyes deceived;--he was never a guesser. He left Mrs. Sumfit to pledge herself in perturbation of spirit to an oath that her eyes had seen Anthony Hackbut; and more, which was, that after the close of the funeral service, the young squire had caught sight of Anthony crouching in a corner of the churchyard, and had sent a man to him, and they had disappeared together. Mrs. Sumfit was heartily laughed at and rallied both by Robert and the farmer. "Tony at a funeral! and train expenses!" the farmer interjected. "D'ye think, mother, Tony'd come to Wrexby churchyard 'fore he come Queen Anne's Farm? And where's he now, mayhap?"

Mrs. Sumfit appealed in despair to Master Gammon, with entreaties, and a ready dumpling.

"There, Mas' Gammon; and why you sh'd play at 'do believe' and at 'don't believe,' after that awesome scene, the solem'est of life's, when you did declare to me, sayin', it was a stride for boots out o' London this morning. Your words, Mas' Gammon! and 'boots'-=it's true, if by that alone! For, 'boots,' I says to myself--he thinks by 'boots,' there being a cord'er in his family on the mother's side; which you yourself told to me, as you did, Mas' Gammon, and now holds back, you did, like a bad horse."

"Hey! does Gammon jib?" said the farmer, with the ghost of old laughter twinkling in his eyes.

"He told me this tale," Mrs. Sumfit continued, daring her irresponsive enemy to contradict her, with a threatening gaze. "He told me this tale, he did; and my belief's, his game 's, he gets me into a corner--there to be laughed at! Mas' Gammon, if you're not a sly old man, you said, you did, he was drownded; your mother's brother's wife's brother; and he had a brother, and what he was to you--that brother--" Mrs. Sumfit smote her hands--"Oh, my goodness, my poor head! but you shan't slip away, Mas' Gammon; no, try you ever so much. Drownded he was, and eight days in the sea, which you told me over a warm mug of ale by the fire years back. And I do believe them dumplings makes ye obstinate; for worse you get, and that fond of 'em, I sh'll soon not have enough in our biggest pot. Yes, you said he was eight days in the sea, and as for face, you said, poor thing! he was like a rag of towel dipped in starch, was your own words, and all his likeness wiped out; and Joe, the other brother, a cord'er--bootmaker, you call 'em--looked down him, as he was stretched out on the shore of the sea, all along, and didn't know him till he come to the boots, and he says, 'It's Abner;' for there was his boots to know him by. Now, will you deny, Mas' Gammon, you said, Mr. Hackbut's boots, and a long stride it was for 'em from London? And I won't be laughed at through arts of any sly old man!"

The circumstantial charge made no impression on Master Gammon, who was heard to mumble, as from the inmost recesses of tight-packed dumpling; but he left the vindication of his case to the farmer's laughter. The mention of her uncle had started a growing agitation in Rhoda, to whom the indication of his eccentric behaviour was a stronger confirmation of his visit to the neighbourhood. And wherefore had he journeyed down? Had he come to haunt her on account of the money he had poured into her lap? Rhoda knew in a moment that she was near a great trial of her strength and truth. She had more than once, I cannot tell you how distantly, conceived that the money had been money upon which the mildest word for "stolen" should be put to express the feeling she had got about it, after she had parted with the bulk of it to the man Sedgett. Not "stolen," not "appropriated," but money that had perhaps been entrusted, and of which Anthony had forgotten the rightful ownership. This idea of hers had burned with no intolerable fire; but, under a weight of all discountenancing appearances, feeble though it was, it had distressed her. The dealing with money, and the necessity for it, had given Rhoda a better comprehension of its nature and value. She had taught herself to think that her suspicion sprang from her uncle's wild demeanour, and the scene of the gold pieces scattered on the floor, as if a heart had burst at her feet.

No sooner did she hear that Anthony had been, by supposition, seen, than the little light of secret dread flamed a panic through her veins. She left the table before Master Gammon had finished, and went out of the house to look about for her uncle. He was nowhere in the fields, nor in the graveyard. She walked over the neighbourhood desolately, until her quickened apprehension was extinguished, and she returned home relieved, thinking it folly to have imagined her uncle was other than a man of hoarded wealth, and that he was here. But, in the interval, she had experienced emotions which warned her of a struggle to come. Who would be friendly to her, and an arm of might? The thought of the storm she had sown upon all sides made her tremble foolishly. When she placed her hand in Robert's, she gave his fingers a confiding pressure, and all but dropped her head upon his bosom, so sick she was with weakness. It would have been a deceit toward him, and that restrained her; perhaps, yet more, she was restrained by the gloomy prospect of having to reply to any words of love, without an idea of what to say, and with a loathing of caresses. She saw herself condemned to stand alone, and at a season when she was not strengthened by pure self-support.

Rhoda had not surrendered the stern belief that she had done well by forcing Dahlia's hand to the marriage, though it had resulted evilly. In reflecting on it, she had still a feeling of the harsh joy peculiar to those who have exercised command with a conscious righteousness upon wilful, sinful, and erring spirits, and have thwarted the wrongdoer. She could only admit that there was sadness in the issue; hitherto, at least, nothing worse than sad disappointment. The man who was her sister's husband could no longer complain that he had been the victim of an imposition. She had bought his promise that he would leave the country, and she had rescued the honour of the family by paying him. At what cost? She asked herself that now, and then her self-support became uneven. Could her uncle have parted with the great sum--have shed it upon her, merely beneficently, and because he loved her? Was it possible that he had the habit of carrying his own riches through the streets of London? She had to silence all questions imperiously, recalling exactly her ideas of him, and the value of money in the moment when money was an object of hunger--when she had seized it like a wolf, and its value was quite unknown, unguessed at.

Rhoda threw up her window before she slept, that she might breathe the cool night air; and, as she leaned out, she heard steps moving away, and knew them to be Robert's, in whom that pressure of her hand had cruelly resuscitated his longing for her. She drew back, wondering at the idleness of men--slaves while they want a woman's love, savages when they have won it. She tried to pity him, but she had not an emotion to spare, save perhaps one of dull exultation, that she, alone of women, was free from that wretched mess called love; and upon it she slept.

It was between the breakfast and dinner hours, at the farm, next day, when the young squire, accompanied by Anthony Hackbut, met farmer Fleming in the lane bordering one of the outermost fields of wheat. Anthony gave little more than a blunt nod to his relative, and slouched on, leaving the farmer in amazement, while the young squire stopped him to speak with him. Anthony made his way on to the house. Shortly after, he was seen passing through the gates of the garden, accompanied by Rhoda. At the dinner-hour, Robert was taken aside by the farmer. Neither Rhoda nor Anthony presented themselves. They did not appear till nightfall. When Anthony came into the room, he took no greetings and gave none. He sat down on the first chair by the door, shaking his head, with vacant eyes. Rhoda took off her bonnet, and sat as strangely silent. In vain Mrs. Sumfit asked her; "Shall it be tea, dear, and a little cold meat?" The two dumb figures were separately interrogated, but they had no answer.

"Come! brother Tony?" the farmer tried to rally him.

Dahlia was knitting some article of feminine gear. Robert stood by the musk-pots at the window, looking at Rhoda fixedly. Of this gaze she became conscious, and glanced from him to the clock.

"It's late," she said, rising.

"But you're empty, my dear. And to think o' going to bed without a dinner, or your tea, and no supper! You'll never say prayers, if you do," said Mrs. Sumfit.

The remark engendered a notion in the farmer's head, that Anthony promised to be particularly prayerless.

"You've been and spent a night at the young squire's, I hear, brother Tony. All right and well. No complaints on my part, I do assure ye. If you're mixed up with that family, I won't bring it in you're anyways mixed up with this family; not so as to clash, do you see. Only, man, now you are here, a word'd be civil, if you don't want a doctor."

"I was right," murmured Mrs. Sumfit. "At the funeral, he was; and Lord be thanked! I thought my eyes was failin'. Mas' Gammon, you'd ha' lost no character by sidin' wi' me."

"Here's Dahlia, too," said the farmer. "Brother Tony, don't you see her? She's beginning to be recognizable, if her hair'd grow a bit faster. She's...well, there she is."

A quavering, tiny voice, that came from Anthony, said: "How d' ye do--how d' ye do;" sounding like the first effort of a fife. But Anthony did not cast eye on Dahlia.

"Will you eat, man?--will you smoke a pipe?--won't you talk a word?--will you go to bed?"

These several questions, coming between pauses, elicited nothing from the staring oldman.

"Is there a matter wrong at the Bank?" the farmer called out, and Anthony jumped in a heap.

"Eh?" persisted the farmer.

Rhoda interposed: "Uncle is tired; he is unwell. Tomorrow he will talk to you."

"No, but is there anything wrong up there, though?" the farmer asked with eager curiosity, and a fresh smile at the thought that those Banks and city folk were mortal, and could upset, notwithstanding their crashing wheels. "Brother Tony, you speak out; has anybody been and broke? Never mind a blow, so long, o' course, as they haven't swallowed your money. How is it? Why, I never saw such a sight as you. You come down from London; you play hide and seek about your relation's house; and here, when you do condescend to step in--eh? how is it? You ain't, I hope, ruined, Tony, are ye?"

Rhoda stood over her uncle to conceal him.

"He shall not speak till he has had some rest. And yes, mother, he shall have some warm tea upstairs in bed. Boil some water. Now, uncle, come with me."

"Anybody broke?" Anthony rolled the words over, as Rhoda raised his arm. "I'm asked such a lot, my dear, I ain't equal to it. You said here 'd be a quiet place. I don't know about money. Try my pockets. Yes, mum, if you was forty policemen, I'm empty; you'd find it. And no objection to nod to prayers; but never was taught one of my own. Where am I going, my dear?"

"Upstairs with me, uncle."

Rhoda had succeeded in getting him on his feet.

The farmer tapped at his forehead, as a signification to the others that Anthony had gone wrong in the head, which reminded him that he had prophesied as much. He stiffened out his legs, and gave a manful spring, crying, "Hulloa, brother Tony! why, man, eh? Look here. What, goin' to bed? What, you, Tony? I say--I say--dear me!" And during these exclamations intricate visions of tripping by means of gold wires danced before him.

Rhoda hurried Anthony out.

After the door had shut, the farmer said: "That comes of it; sooner or later, there it is! You give your heart to money--you insure in a ship, and as much as say, here's a ship, and, blow and lighten, I defy you. Whereas we day-by-day people, if it do blow and if it do lighten, and the waves are avilanches, we've nothing to lose. Poor old Tony--a smash, to a certainty. There's been a smash, and he's gone under the harrow. Any o' you here might ha' heard me say, things can't last for ever. Ha'n't you, now?"

The persons present meekly acquiesced in his prophetic spirit to this extent. Mrs. Sumfit dolorously said, "Often, William dear," and accepted the incontestable truth in deep humiliation of mind.

"Save," the farmer continued, "save and store, only don't put your heart in the box."

"It's true, William;" Mrs. Sumfit acted clerk to the sermon.

Dahlia took her softly by the neck, and kissed her.

"Is it love for the old woman?" Mrs. Sumfit murmured fondly; and Dahlia kissed her again.

The farmer had by this time rounded to the thought of how he personally might be affected by Anthony's ill-luck, supposing; perchance, that Anthony was suffering from something more than a sentimental attachment to the Bank of his predilection: and such a reflection instantly diverted his tendency to moralize.

"We shall hear to-morrow," he observed in conclusion; which, as it caused a desire for the morrow to spring within his bosom, sent his eyes at Master Gammon, who was half an hour behind his time for bed, and had dropped asleep in his chair. This unusual display of public somnolence on Master Gammon's part, together with the veteran's reputation for slowness, made the farmer fret at him as being in some way an obstruction to the lively progress of the hours.

"Hoy, Gammon!" he sang out, awakeningly to ordinary ears; but Master Gammon was not one who took the ordinary plunge into the gulf of sleep, and it was required to shake him and to bellow at him--to administer at once earthquake and thunder--before his lizard eyelids would lift over the great, old-world eyes; upon which, like a clayey monster refusing to be informed with heavenly fire, he rolled to the right of his chair and to the left, and pitched forward, and insisted upon being inanimate. Brought at last to a condition of stale consciousness, he looked at his master long, and uttered surprisingly "Farmer, there's queer things going on in this house," and then relapsed to a combat with Mrs. Sumfit, regarding the candle; she saying that it was not to be entrusted to him, and he sullenly contending that it was.

"Here, we'll all go to bed," said the farmer. "What with one person queer, and another person queer, I shall be in for a headache, if I take to thinking. Gammon's a man sees in 's sleep what he misses awake. Did you ever know," he addressed anybody, "such a thing as Tony Hackbut coming into a relation's house, and sitting there, and not a word for any of us? It's, I call it, dumbfoundering. And that's me: why didn't I go up and shake his hand, you ask. Well, why not? If he don't know he's welcome, without ceremony, he's no good. Why, I've got matters t' occupy my mind, too, haven't I? Every man has, and some more'n others, let alone crosses. There's something wrong with my brother-in-law, Tony, that's settled. Odd that we country people, who bide, and take the Lord's gifts--" The farmer did not follow out this reflection, but raising his arms, shepherd-wise, he puffed as if blowing the two women before him to their beds, and then gave a shy look at Robert, and nodded good-night to him. Robert nodded in reply. He knew the cause of the farmer's uncommon blitheness. Algernon Blancove, the young squire, had proposed for Rhoda's hand.

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Rhoda Fleming - Book 5 - Chapter 43
BOOK V CHAPTER XLIIIAnthony had robbed the Bank. The young squire was aware of the fact, and had offered to interpose for him, and to make good the money to the Bank, upon one condition. So much, Rhoda had gathered from her uncle's babbling interjections throughout the day. The farmer knew only of the young squire's proposal, which had been made direct to him; and he had left it to Robert to state the case to Rhoda, and plead for himself. She believed fully, when she came downstairs into the room where Robert was awaiting her, that she had but to
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BOOK V CHAPTER XLIOn 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
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