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The Lady Penelope
by [?]

Now when Sir John was gone, and his remains carried to his family burying- place in another part of England, the lady began in due time to wonder whither Sir William had betaken himself. But she had been cured of precipitancy (if ever woman were), and was prepared to wait her whole lifetime a widow if the said Sir William should not reappear. Her life was now passed mostly within the walls, or in promenading between the pleasaunce and the bowling-green; and she very seldom went even so far as the high road which then skirted the grounds on the north, though it has now, and for many years, been diverted to the south side. Her patience was rewarded (if love be in any case a reward); for one day, many months after her second husband’s death, a messenger arrived at her gate with the intelligence that Sir William Hervy was again in Casterbridge, and would be glad to know if it were her pleasure that he should wait upon her.

It need hardly be said that permission was joyfully granted, and within two hours her lover stood before her, a more thoughtful man than formerly, but in all essential respects the same man, generous, modest to diffidence, and sincere. The reserve which womanly decorum threw over her manner was but too obviously artificial, and when he said ‘the ways of Providence are strange,’ and added after a moment, ‘and merciful likewise,’ she could not conceal her agitation, and burst into tears upon his neck.

‘But this is too soon,’ she said, starting back.

‘But no,’ said he. ‘You are eleven months gone in widowhood, and it is not as if Sir John had been a good husband to you.’

His visits grew pretty frequent now, as may well be guessed, and in a month or two he began to urge her to an early union. But she counselled a little longer delay.

‘Why?’ said he. ‘Surely I have waited long! Life is short; we are getting older every day, and I am the last of the three.’

‘Yes,’ said the lady frankly. ‘And that is why I would not have you hasten. Our marriage may seem so strange to everybody, after my unlucky remark on that occasion we know so well, and which so many others know likewise, thanks to talebearers.’

On this representation he conceded a little space, for the sake of her good name. But the destined day of their marriage at last arrived, and it was a gay time for the villagers and all concerned, and the bells in the parish church rang from noon till night. Thus at last she was united to the man who had loved her the most tenderly of them all, who but for his reticence might perhaps have been the first to win her. Often did he say to himself; ‘How wondrous that her words should have been fulfilled! Many a truth hath been spoken in jest, but never a more remarkable one!’ The noble lady herself preferred not to dwell on the coincidence, a certain shyness, if not shame, crossing her fair face at any allusion thereto.

But people will have their say, sensitive souls or none, and their sayings on this third occasion took a singular shape. ‘Surely,’ they whispered, ‘there is something more than chance in this . . . The death of the first was possibly natural; but what of the death of the second, who ill-used her, and whom, loving the third so desperately, she must have wished out of the way?’

Then they pieced together sundry trivial incidents of Sir John’s illness, and dwelt upon the indubitable truth that he had grown worse after her lover’s unexpected visit; till a very sinister theory was built up as to the hand she may have had in Sir John’s premature demise. But nothing of this suspicion was said openly, for she was a lady of noble birth–nobler, indeed, than either of her husbands–and what people suspected they feared to express in formal accusation.