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The First Countess Of Wessex
by [?]

They arrived, and there were indications in their manner that they meant to make a night of it. Baxby of Sherton Castle was late, and they waited a quarter of an hour for him, he being one of the liveliest of Dornell’s friends; without whose presence no such dinner as this would be considered complete, and, it may be added, with whose presence no dinner which included both sexes could be conducted with strict propriety. He had just returned from London, and the Squire was anxious to talk to him–for no definite reason; but he had lately breathed the atmosphere in which Betty was.

At length they heard Baxby driving up to the door, whereupon the host and the rest of his guests crossed over to the dining-room. In a moment Baxby came hastily in at their heels, apologizing for his lateness.

‘I only came back last night, you know,’ he said; ‘and the truth o’t is, I had as much as I could carry.’ He turned to the Squire. ‘Well, Dornell–so cunning Reynard has stolen your little ewe lamb? Ha, ha!’

‘What?’ said Squire Dornell vacantly, across the dining-table, round which they were all standing, the cold March sunlight streaming in upon his full-clean shaven face.

‘Surely th’st know what all the town knows?–you’ve had a letter by this time?–that Stephen Reynard has married your Betty? Yes, as I’m a living man. It was a carefully-arranged thing: they parted at once, and are not to meet for five or six years. But, Lord, you must know!’

A thud on the floor was the only reply of the Squire. They quickly turned. He had fallen down like a log behind the table, and lay motionless on the oak boards.

Those at hand hastily bent over him, and the whole group were in confusion. They found him to be quite unconscious, though puffing and panting like a blacksmith’s bellows. His face was livid, his veins swollen, and beads of perspiration stood upon his brow.

‘What’s happened to him?’ said several.

‘An apoplectic fit,’ said the doctor from Evershead, gravely.

He was only called in at the Court for small ailments, as a rule, and felt the importance of the situation. He lifted the Squire’s head, loosened his cravat and clothing, and rang for the servants, who took the Squire upstairs.

There he lay as if in a drugged sleep. The surgeon drew a basin-full of blood from him, but it was nearly six o’clock before he came to himself. The dinner was completely disorganized, and some had gone home long ago; but two or three remained.

‘Bless my soul,’ Baxby kept repeating, ‘I didn’t know things had come to this pass between Dornell and his lady! I thought the feast he was spreading to-day was in honour of the event, though privately kept for the present! His little maid married without his knowledge!’

As soon as the Squire recovered consciousness he gasped: ”Tis abduction! ‘Tis a capital felony! He can be hung! Where is Baxby? I am very well now. What items have ye heard, Baxby?’

The bearer of the untoward news was extremely unwilling to agitate Dornell further, and would say little more at first. But an hour after, when the Squire had partially recovered and was sitting up, Baxby told as much as he knew, the most important particular being that Betty’s mother was present at the marriage, and showed every mark of approval. ‘Everything appeared to have been done so regularly that I, of course, thought you knew all about it,’ he said.

‘I knew no more than the underground dead that such a step was in the wind! A child not yet thirteen! How Sue hath outwitted me! Did Reynard go up to Lon’on with ’em, d’ye know?’

‘I can’t say. All I know is that your lady and daughter were walking along the street, with the footman behind ’em; that they entered a jeweller’s shop, where Reynard was standing; and that there, in the presence o’ the shopkeeper and your man, who was called in on purpose, your Betty said to Reynard–so the story goes: ‘pon my soul I don’t vouch for the truth of it–she said, “Will you marry me?” or, “I want to marry you: will you have me–now or never?” she said.’