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The Lady Penelope
by [?]

Two or three years of suffering were passed by Lady Penelope as the despised and chidden wife of this man Sir John, amid regrets that she had so greatly mistaken him, and sighs for one whom she thought never to see again, till it chanced that her husband fell sick of some slight ailment. One day after this, when she was sitting in his room, looking from the window upon the expanse in front, she beheld, approaching the house on foot, a form she seemed to know well. Lady Penelope withdrew silently from the sickroom, and descended to the hall, whence, through the doorway, she saw entering between the two round towers, which at that time flanked the gateway, Sir William Hervy, as she had surmised, but looking thin and travel-worn. She advanced into the courtyard to meet him.

‘I was passing through Casterbridge,’ he said, with faltering deference, ‘and I walked out to ask after your ladyship’s health. I felt that I could do no less; and, of course, to pay my respects to your good husband, my heretofore acquaintance . . . But oh, Penelope, th’st look sick and sorry!’

‘I am heartsick, that’s all,’ said she.

They could see in each other an emotion which neither wished to express, and they stood thus a long time with tears in their eyes.

‘He does not treat ‘ee well, I hear,’ said Sir William in a low voice. ‘May God in Heaven forgive him; but it is asking a great deal!’

‘Hush, hush!’ said she hastily.

‘Nay, but I will speak what I may honestly say,’ he answered. ‘I am not under your roof, and my tongue is free. Why didst not wait for me, Penelope, or send to me a more overt letter? I would have travelled night and day to come!’

‘Too late, William; you must not ask it,’ said she, endeavouring to quiet him as in old times. ‘My husband just now is unwell. He will grow better in a day or two, maybe. You must call again and see him before you leave Casterbridge.’

As she said this their eyes met. Each was thinking of her lightsome words about taking the three men in turn; each thought that two-thirds of that promise had been fulfilled. But, as if it were unpleasant to her that this recollection should have arisen, she spoke again quickly: ‘Come again in a day or two, when my husband will be well enough to see you.’

Sir William departed without entering the house, and she returned to Sir John’s chamber. He, rising from his pillow, said, ‘To whom hast been talking, wife, in the courtyard? I heard voices there.’

She hesitated, and he repeated the question more impatiently.

‘I do not wish to tell you now,’ said she.

‘But I wooll know!’ said he.

Then she answered, ‘Sir William Hervy.’

‘By G— I thought as much!’ cried Sir John, drops of perspiration standing on his white face. ‘A skulking villain! A sick man’s ears are keen, my lady. I heard that they were lover-like tones, and he called ‘ee by your Christian name. These be your intrigues, my lady, when I am off my legs awhile!’

‘On my honour,’ cried she, ‘you do me a wrong. I swear I did not know of his coming!’

‘Swear as you will,’ said Sir John, ‘I don’t believe ‘ee.’ And with this he taunted her, and worked himself into a greater passion, which much increased his illness. His lady sat still, brooding. There was that upon her face which had seldom been there since her marriage; and she seemed to think anew of what she had so lightly said in the days of her freedom, when her three lovers were one and all coveting her hand. ‘I began at the wrong end of them,’ she murmured. ‘My God–that did I!’

‘What?’ said he.

‘A trifle,’ said she. ‘I spoke to myself only.’

It was somewhat strange that after this day, while she went about the house with even a sadder face than usual, her churlish husband grew worse; and what was more, to the surprise of all, though to the regret of few, he died a fortnight later. Sir William had not called upon him as he had promised, having received a private communication from Lady Penelope, frankly informing him that to do so would be inadvisable, by reason of her husband’s temper.