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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesRhoda Fleming - Book 5 - Chapter 43
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Rhoda Fleming - Book 5 - Chapter 43 Post by :Amaranta720 Category :Long Stories Author :George Meredith Date :May 2012 Read :924

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Rhoda Fleming - Book 5 - Chapter 43

BOOK V CHAPTER XLIII

Anthony 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 speak and a mine would be sprung; and shrinking from it, hoping for it, she entered, and tried to fasten her eyes upon Robert distinctly, telling him the tale. Robert listened with a calculating seriousness of manner that quieted her physical dread of his passion. She finished; and he said "It will, perhaps, save your uncle: I'm sure it will please your father."

She sat down, feeling that a warmth had gone, and that she was very bare.

"Must I consent, then?"

"If you can, I suppose."

Both being spirits formed for action, a perplexity found them weak as babes. He, moreover, was stung to see her debating at all upon such a question; and he was in despair before complicated events which gave nothing for his hands and heart to do. Stiff endurance seemed to him to be his lesson; and he made a show of having learnt it.

"Were you going out, Robert?"

"I usually make the rounds of the house, to be sure all's safe."

His walking about the garden at night was not, then, for the purpose of looking at her window. Rhoda coloured in all her dark crimson with shame for thinking that it had been so.

"I must decide to-morrow morning."

"They say, the pillow's the best counsellor."

A reply that presumed she would sleep appeared to her as bitterly unfriendly.

"Did father wish it?"

"Not by what he spoke."

"You suppose he does wish it?"

"Where's the father who wouldn't? Of course, he wishes it. He's kind enough, but you may be certain he wishes it."

"Oh! Dahlia, Dahlia!" Rhoda moaned, under a rush of new sensations, unfilial, akin to those which her sister had distressed her by speaking shamelessly out.

"Ah! poor soul!" added Robert.

"My darling must be brave: she must have great courage. Dahlia cannot be a coward. I begin to see."

Rhoda threw up her face, and sat awhile as one who was reading old matters by a fresh light.

"I can't think," she said, with a start. "Have I been dreadfully cruel? Was I unsisterly? I have such a horror of some things--disgrace. And men are so hard on women; and father--I felt for him. And I hated that base man. It's his cousin and his name! I could almost fancy this trial is brought round to me for punishment."

An ironic devil prompted Robert to say, "You can't let harm come to your uncle."

The thing implied was the farthest in his idea of any woman's possible duty.

"Are you of that opinion?" Rhoda questioned with her eyes, but uttered nothing.

Now, he had spoken almost in the ironical tone. She should have noted that. And how could a true-hearted girl suppose him capable of giving such counsel to her whom he loved? It smote him with horror and anger; but he was much too manly to betray these actual sentiments, and continued to dissemble. You see, he had not forgiven her for her indifference to him.

"You are no longer your own mistress," he said, meaning exactly the reverse.

This--that she was bound in generosity to sacrifice herself--was what Rhoda feared. There was no forceful passion in her bosom to burst through the crowd of weak reasonings and vanities, to bid her be a woman, not a puppet; and the passion in him, for which she craved, that she might be taken up by it and whirled into forgetfulness, with a seal of betrothal upon her lips, was absent so that she thought herself loved no more by Robert. She was weary of thinking and acting on her own responsibility, and would gladly have abandoned her will; yet her judgement, if she was still to exercise it, told her that the step she was bidden to take was one, the direct consequence and the fruit of her other resolute steps. Pride whispered, "You could compel your sister to do that which she abhorred;" and Pity pleaded for her poor old uncle Anthony. She looked back in imagination at that scene with him in London, amazed at her frenzy of power, and again, from that contemplation, amazed at her present nervelessness.

"I am not fit to be my own mistress," she said.

"Then, the sooner you decide the better," observed Robert, and the room became hot and narrow to him.

"Very little time is given me," she murmured. The sound was like a whimper; exasperating to one who had witnessed her remorseless energy.

"I dare say you won't find the hardship so great," said he.

"Because," she looked up quickly, "I went out one day to meet him? Do you mean that, Robert? I went to hear news of my sister. I had received no letters from her. And he wrote to say that he could tell me about her. My uncle took me once to the Bank. I saw him there first. He spoke of Wrexby, and of my sister. It is pleasant to inexperienced girls to hear themselves praised. Since the day when you told me to turn back I have always respected you."

Her eyelids lowered softly.

Could she have humbled herself more? But she had, at the same time, touched his old wound: and his rival then was the wooer now, rich, and a gentleman. And this room, Robert thought as he looked about it, was the room in which she had refused him, when he first asked her to be his.

"I think," he said, "I've never begged your pardon for the last occasion of our being alone here together. I've had my arm round you. Don't be frightened. That's my marriage, and there was my wife. And there's an end of my likings and my misconduct. Forgive me for calling it to mind."

"No, no, Robert," Rhoda lifted her hands, and, startled by the impulse, dropped them, saying: "What forgiveness? Was I ever angry with you?"

A look of tenderness accompanied the words, and grew into a dusky crimson rose under his eyes.

"When you went into the wood, I saw you going: I knew it was for some good object," he said, and flushed equally.

But, by the recurrence to that scene, he had checked her sensitive developing emotion. She hung a moment in languor, and that oriental warmth of colour ebbed away from her cheeks.

"You are very kind," said she.

Then he perceived in dimmest fashion that possibly a chance had come to ripeness, withered, and fallen, within the late scoffing seconds of time. Enraged at his blindness, and careful, lest he had wrongly guessed, not to expose his regret (the man was a lover), he remarked, both truthfully and hypocritically: "I've always thought you were born to be a lady." (You had that ambition, young madam.)

She answered: "That's what I don't understand." (Your saying it, O my friend!)

"You will soon take to your new duties." (You have small objection to them even now.)

"Yes, or my life won't be worth much." (Know, that you are driving me to it.)

"And I wish you happiness, Rhoda." (You are madly imperilling the prospect thereof.)

To each of them the second meaning stood shadowy behind the utterances. And further,--

"Thank you, Robert." (I shall have to thank you for the issue.)

"Now it's time to part." (Do you not see that there's a danger for me in remaining?)

"Good night." (Behold, I am submissive.)

"Good night, Rhoda." (You were the first to give the signal of parting.)

"Good night." (I am simply submissive.)

"Why not my name? Are you hurt with me?"

Rhoda choked. The indirectness of speech had been a shelter to her, permitting her to hint at more than she dared clothe in words.

Again the delicious dusky rose glowed beneath his eyes.

But he had put his hand out to her, and she had not taken it.

"What have I done to offend you? I really don't know, Rhoda."

"Nothing." The flower had closed.

He determined to believe that she was gladdened at heart by the prospect of a fine marriage, and now began to discourse of Anthony's delinquency, saying,--

"It was not money taken for money's sake: any one can see that. It was half clear to me, when you told me about it, that the money was not his to give, but I've got the habit of trusting you to be always correct."

"And I never am," said Rhoda, vexed at him and at herself.

"Women can't judge so well about money matters. Has your uncle no account of his own at the Bank? He was thought to be a bit of a miser."

"What he is, or what he was, I can't guess. He has not been near the Bank since that day; nor to his home. He has wandered down on his way here, sleeping in cottages. His heart seems broken. I have still a great deal of the money. I kept it, thinking it might be a protection for Dahlia. Oh! my thoughts and what I have done! Of course, I imagined him to be rich. A thousand pounds seemed a great deal to me, and very little for one who was rich. If I had reflected at all, I must have seen that Uncle Anthony would never have carried so much through the streets. I was like a fiend for money. I must have been acting wrongly. Such a craving as that is a sign of evil."

"What evil there is, you're going to mend, Rhoda."

"I sell myself, then."

"Hardly so bad as that. The money will come from you instead of from your uncle."

Rhoda bent forward in her chair, with her elbows on her knees, like a man brooding. Perhaps, it was right that the money should come from her. And how could she have hoped to get the money by any other means? Here at least was a positive escape from perplexity. It came at the right moment; was it a help divine? What cowardice had been prompting her to evade it? After all, could it be a dreadful step that she was required to take?

Her eyes met Robert's, and he said startlingly: "Just like a woman!"

"Why?" but she had caught the significance, and blushed with spite.

"He was the first to praise you."

"You are brutal to me, Robert."

"My name at last! You accused me of that sort of thing before, in this room."

Rhoda stood up. "I will wish you good night."

"And now you take my hand."

"Good night," they uttered simultaneously; but Robert did not give up the hand he had got in his own. His eyes grew sharp, and he squeezed the fingers.

"I'm bound," she cried.

"Once!" Robert drew her nearer to him.

"Let me go."

"Once!" he reiterated. "Rhoda, as I've never kissed you--once!"

"No: don't anger me."

"No one has ever kissed you?"

"Never."

"Then, I--" His force was compelling the straightened figure.

Had he said, "Be mine!" she might have softened to his embrace; but there was no fire of divining love in her bosom to perceive her lover's meaning. She read all his words as a placard on a board, and revolted from the outrage of submitting her lips to one who was not to be her husband. His jealousy demanded that gratification foremost. The "Be mine!" was ready enough to follow.

"Let me go, Robert."

She was released. The cause for it was the opening of the door. Anthony stood there.

A more astounding resemblance to the phantasm of a dream was never presented. He was clad in a manner to show forth the condition of his wits, in partial night and day attire: one of the farmer's nightcaps was on his head, surmounted by his hat. A confused recollection of the necessity for trousers, had made him draw on those garments sufficiently to permit of the movement of his short legs, at which point their subserviency to the uses ended. Wrinkled with incongruous clothing from head to foot, and dazed by the light, he peered on them, like a mouse magnified and petrified.

"Dearest uncle!" Rhoda went to him.

Anthony nodded, pointing to the door leading out of the house.

"I just want to go off--go off. Never you mind me. I'm only going off."

"You must go to your bed, uncle."

"Oh, Lord! no. I'm going off, my dear. I've had sleep enough for forty. I--" he turned his mouth to Rhoda's ear, "I don't want t' see th' old farmer." And, as if he had given a conclusive reason for his departure, he bored towards the door, repeating it, and bawling additionally, "in the morning."

"You have seen him, uncle. You have seen him. It's over," said Rhoda.

Anthony whispered: "I don't want t' see th' old farmer."

"But, you have seen him, uncle."

"In the morning, my dear. Not in the morning. He'll be looking and asking, 'Where away, brother Tony?' 'Where's your banker's book, brother Tony?' 'How's money-market, brother Tony?' I can't see th' old farmer."

It was impossible to avoid smiling: his imitation of the farmer's country style was exact.

She took his hands, and used every persuasion she could think of to induce him to return to his bed; nor was he insensible to argument, or superior to explanation.

"Th' old farmer thinks I've got millions, my dear. You can't satisfy him. He... I don't want t' see him in the morning. He thinks I've got millions. His mouth'll go down. I don't want... You don't want him to look... And I can't count now; I can't count a bit. And every post I see 's a policeman. I ain't hiding. Let 'em take the old man. And he was a faithful servant, till one day he got up on a regular whirly-go-round, and ever since...such a little boy! I'm frightened o' you, Rhoda."

"I will do everything for you," said Rhoda, crying wretchedly.

"Because, the young squire says," Anthony made his voice mysterious.

"Yes, yes," Rhoda stopped him; "and I consent:" she gave a hurried half-glance behind her. "Come, uncle. Oh! pity! don't let me think your reason's gone. I can get you the money, but if you go foolish, I cannot help you."

Her energy had returned to her with the sense of sacrifice. Anthony eyed her tears. "We've sat on a bank and cried together, haven't we?" he said. "And counted ants, we have. Shall we sit in the sun together to-morrow? Say, we shall. Shall we? A good long day in the sun and nobody looking at me 's my pleasure."

Rhoda gave him the assurance, and he turned and went upstairs with her, docile at the prospect of hours to be passed in the sunlight.

Yet, when morning came, he had disappeared. Robert also was absent from the breakfast-table. The farmer made no remarks, save that he reckoned Master Gammon was right--in allusion to the veteran's somnolent observation overnight; and strange things were acted before his eyes.

There came by the morning delivery of letters one addressed to "Miss Fleming." He beheld his daughters rise, put their hands out, and claim it, in a breath; and they gazed upon one another like the two women demanding the babe from the justice of the Wise King. The letter was placed in Rhoda's hand; Dahlia laid hers on it. Their mouths were shut; any one not looking at them would have been unaware that a supreme conflict was going on in the room. It was a strenuous wrestle of their eyeballs, like the "give way" of athletes pausing. But the delirious beat down the constitutional strength. A hard bright smile ridged the hollow of Dahlia's cheeks. Rhoda's dark eyes shut; she let go her hold, and Dahlia thrust the letter in against her bosom, snatched it out again, and dipped her face to roses in a jug, and kissing Mrs. Sumfit, ran from the room for a single minute; after which she came back smiling with gravely joyful eyes and showing a sedate readiness to eat and conclude the morning meal.

What did this mean? The farmer could have made allowance for Rhoda's behaving so, seeing that she notoriously possessed intellect; and he had the habit of charging all freaks and vagaries of manner upon intellect.

But Dahlia was a soft creature, without this apology for extravagance, and what right had she to letters addressed to "Miss Fleming?" The farmer prepared to ask a question, and was further instigated to it by seeing Mrs. Sumfit's eyes roll sympathetic under a burden of overpowering curiosity and bewilderment. On the point of speaking, he remembered that he had pledged his word to ask no questions; he feared to--that was the secret; he had put his trust in Rhoda's assurance, and shrank from a spoken suspicion. So, checking himself, he broke out upon Mrs. Sumfit: "Now, then, mother!" which caused her to fluster guiltily, she having likewise given her oath to be totally unquestioning, even as was Master Gammon, whom she watched with a deep envy. Mrs. Sumfit excused the anxious expression of her face by saying that she was thinking of her dairy, whither, followed by the veteran, she retired.

Rhoda stood eyeing Dahlia, nerved to battle against the contents of that letter, though in the first conflict she had been beaten. "Oh, this curse of love!" she thought in her heart; and as Dahlia left the room, flushed, stupefied, and conscienceless, Rhoda the more readily told her father the determination which was the result of her interview with Robert.

No sooner had she done so, than a strange fluttering desire to look on Robert awoke within her bosom. She left the house, believing that she went abroad to seek her uncle, and walked up a small grass-knoll, a little beyond the farm-yard, from which she could see green corn-tracts and the pastures by the river, the river flowing oily under summer light, and the slow-footed cows, with their heads bent to the herbage; far-away sheep, and white hawthorn bushes, and deep hedge-ways bursting out of the trimness of the earlier season; and a nightingale sang among the hazels near by.

This scene of unthrobbing peacefulness was beheld by Rhoda with her first conscious delight in it. She gazed round on the farm, under a quick new impulse of affection for her old home. And whose hand was it that could alone sustain the working of the farm, and had done so, without reward? Her eyes travelled up to Wrexby Hall, perfectly barren of any feeling that she was to enter the place, aware only that it was full of pain for her. She accused herself, but could not accept the charge of her having ever hoped for transforming events that should twist and throw the dear old farm-life long back into the fields of memory. Nor could she understand the reason of her continued coolness to Robert. Enough of accurate reflection was given her to perceive that discontent with her station was the original cause of her discontent now. What she had sown she was reaping:--and wretchedly colourless are these harvests of our dream! The sun has not shone on them. They may have a tragic blood-hue, as with Dahlia's; but they will never have any warm, and fresh, and nourishing sweetness--the juice which is in a single blade of grass.

A longing came upon Rhoda to go and handle butter. She wished to smell it as Mrs. Sumfit drubbed and patted and flattened and rounded it in the dairy; and she ran down the slope, meeting her father at the gate. He was dressed in his brushed suit, going she knew whither, and when he asked if she had seen her uncle, she gave for answer a plain negative, and longed more keenly to be at work with her hands, and to smell the homely creamy air under the dairy-shed.

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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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