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   Chapter 1 No.1

Barbara Rebell By Marie Belloc Lowndes Characters: 20800

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


"Mon pauvre c?ur maladroit, mon c?ur plein de révolte et d'espérance...."

"The past is death's, the future is thine own."

Shelley.

Fifteen years had gone by since the eventful birthday and meeting at St. Germains.

As Barbara Rebell, still Barbara Rebell, though she had been a wife, a most unhappy wife, for six years, stepped from the small dark vestibule into the dimly-lighted hall of Chancton Priory, her foot slipped on the floor; and she would have fallen had not a man's hand, small but curiously bony and fleshless, grasped her right arm, while, at the same moment, a deep voice from out the darkness exclaimed, "A good omen! So stumbled the Conqueror!"

The accent in which the odd words were uttered would have told a tale as to the speaker's hard-bitten nationality to most English-speaking folk: not so to the woman to whom they were addressed. Yet they smote on her ear as though laden with welcome, for they recalled the voice of a certain Andrew Johnstone, the Scotch Governor of the West Indian island of Santa Maria, whose brotherly kindness and unobtrusive sympathy had been more comfortable to her, in a moment of great humiliation and distress, than his English wife's more openly expressed concern and more eagerly offered friendship.

And then, as the stranger advanced, hesitatingly, into the hall, she found herself confronted by an odd, indeed an amazing figure, which yet also brought a quick sense of being at last in a dear familiar place offering both welcome and shelter. For she was at once aware that this must be the notable Jane Turke, Madame Sampiero's housekeeper, one to whom Barbara's own mother had often referred when telling her little daughter of the delights of Chancton Priory-of the Sussex country house to which, when dying, the thoughts of Richard Rebell's wife seemed ever turning with sick longing and regret.

Mrs. Turke wore a travesty of the conventional housekeeper's costume. There, to be sure, were the black apron and lace cap and the bunch of jingling keys, but the watered silk of which the gown was made was of bright yellow, and across its wearer's ample bosom was spread an elaborate parure of topazes set in filigree gold, a barbaric ornament which, however, did not seem out of place on the remarkable-looking old lady. Two earrings, evidently belonging to the same set, had been mounted as pins, and gleamed on the black lace partly covering Mrs. Turke's grey hair, which was cut in a straight fringe above the shrewd, twinkling eyes, Roman nose, and firm, well-shaped mouth and chin.

For a few moments the housekeeper held, as it were, the field to herself: she curtsied twice, but there was nothing servile or menial about the salutation, and each time the yellow gown swept the stone-flagged floor she uttered the words, "Welcome, Ma'am, to Chancton," running her eyes quickly the while over the slender stranger whose coming might bring such amazing changes to the Priory.

Then, as Mrs. Rebell, half smiling, put out her hand, the old woman-for, in spite of her look of massive strength Mrs. Turke was by now an old woman-said more naturally, "You don't remember Jane Turke, Ma'am, but Jane Turke remembers you, when you was little Missy, and your dear Mamma used to bring you here as a babby."

Mrs. Turke's voice was quite amazingly unlike that which had uttered, close to the door, the few words of what Barbara had felt to be a far sincerer welcome. It was essentially a made-up, artificial voice,-one to which only the old-fashioned but expressive word "genteel" could possibly apply: an intelligent listener could not but feel certain that Mrs. Turke would be bound to speak, if under stress of emotion, in quite other accents.

A muttered exclamation, a growl from that other presence who still stood apart, hidden in the deep shadows cast by the music gallery which stretched across the hall just above the head of the little group, seemed to nerve the housekeeper to a fresh effort: "This gentleman, Ma'am," she cried, waving a fat be-ringed hand towards the darkness, "is Doctor McKirdy. He also knew your dear Mamma, and is very pleased to see you once more at Chancton Priory."

From behind Barbara Rebell lumbered forth into the light another strange figure, a man this time, clad in evening dress. But he also seemed oddly familiar, and Mrs. Rebell knew him for a certain Alexander McKirdy, of whom, again, she had often heard from her mother. "I'll just thank ye," he said harshly, "to let me utter my own welcome to this lady. My words, no doubt, will be poor things, Mrs. Turke, compared to yours, but they will have the advantage of being my own!"

Alexander McKirdy was singularly ugly,-so much had to be conceded to his enemies and critics, and at Chancton there were many who felt themselves at enmity with him, and few who were capable of realising either the Scotchman's intellectual ability or his entire disinterestedness. Of fair height, he yet gave the impression of being short and ungainly, owing to the huge size of his head and the disproportionate breadth of his shoulders. His features were rough-hewn and irregular, only redeemed by a delicate, well-shaped mouth, and penetrating, not unkindly pale blue eyes. His hair, once bright red, now sandy grey streaked with white, was always kept short, bristling round a high intelligent forehead, and he was supposed to gratify Scotch economy by cutting it himself. He was clean-shaven, and his dress was habitually that of a man quite indifferent to his outward appearance; like most ugly and eccentric-looking men, Doctor McKirdy appeared at his best on the rare occasions when he was compelled to wear his ancient dress clothes.

Such was the man who now turned and cast a long searching look at Barbara Rebell. "I shall know if you are welcome-welcome to me, that is-better an hour hence than now, and better still to-morrow than to-day"-but a twinkle in his small bright eyes softened the ungraciousness of his words: "Now," he said, "be off, Mrs. Turke! You've had your innings, and said your say, and now comes my turn."

"You're never going to take Mrs. Rebell up to Madam now,-this very minute?-before she has taken off her bonnet?-or seen her room?-or had her dinner?" but the man whom she addressed with such fussy zeal made no reply. Instead, he jerked his right shoulder, that as to which Barbara wondered if it could be higher than the other, towards the shadows from which he had himself emerged, and Mrs. Turke meekly turned away, her yellow silk gown rustling, and her barbaric ornaments jingling, as she passed through the swing door which shut off the hall, where they had all three been standing, from the commons of the Priory.

Doctor McKirdy lifted one of the high lamps, which seemed to make the darkness of the hall more visible, in his strong, steady hands. Then he turned abruptly to Mrs. Rebell. "Now," said he, "just a word with you, in your private ear."

Without waiting for an answer, he started walking down the hall, Barbara following obediently, while yet finding time to gaze, half fearfully, as she went, at the quivering grotesque shadows flung by herself and her companion across the bare spaces of flagged floor, and over the high-backed armchairs, the Chinese screen, and the Indian cabinets which lined the walls on either side of the huge fire-place.

At last they stopped before a closed door-one curiously ornate, and heavy with gilding. Doctor McKirdy motioned to his companion to open it, and as she did so they passed through into what was evidently the rarely-used drawing-room of the Priory.

Then, putting the lamp down on the top of a china cabinet, the Scotchman turned and faced his companion, and with a certain surprise Mrs. Rebell realised that he was much taller than herself, and that as he spoke she had to look up into his face.

"I should tell you," he said, with no preamble, "that it was I who wrote you the letter bidding you come."

Barbara shrank back: of course she had been aware,-painfully aware,-that the letter which had indeed bidden her, not unkindly, to leave the West Indian island where she had spent her wretched married life, and make Chancton Priory her home, had not been written by her godmother's own hand. The knowledge had troubled her, for it implied that her letter of appeal, that to which this was an answer, had also been read by alien eyes.

"Yes," the doctor repeated, as though unwilling to spare her, "I wrote it-of course at Madam's dictation: but it was my notion that when going through London you should see Goodchild. He's an honest man,-that is, honest as lawyers go! I thought may-be he might explain how matters are here-Well, did you see him?"

"Yes, I went there this morning. Mr. Goodchild told me that my godmother was paralysed,-but that, of course, I knew already. Perhaps you have forgotten that you yourself long ago wrote and told me of her illness? Mr. Goodchild also explained to me that Madame Sampiero sees very few people. He seemed to doubt"-Barbara's soft, steady voice suddenly trembled-"whether she would consent to see me; but I do hope"-she fixed her dark eyes on his face with a rather piteous expression-"I do hope, Doctor McKirdy, that she will see me?"

"Don't fash yourself! She is going to see you,-that is, if I just wish it!"

He looked down at the delicate, sensitive face of the young woman standing before him, with an intent, scrutinising gaze, allowed it to travel slowly downwards till it seemed wholly to envelop her, and yet Barbara felt no offence: she realised that this strange being only so far examined her outward shape, inasmuch as he believed it would help him to probe her character and nature.

In very truth the doctor's mind was filled at the present moment with the thought of one in every way differing from Mrs. Rebell. How would this still young creature-Barbara's look of fragility and youth gave him something of a shock-affect Madame Sampiero? That was the question he had set himself to solve in the next few moments.

"Are you one of those," he said suddenly, and rather hoarsely, "who shrink from the sight of suffering?-who abhor distortion?-who only sympathise with pain when they themselves are in the way to require sympathy?"

Barbara hesitated. His questions, flung at her with quick short words, compelled true answers.

"N

o," she said, looking at him with steady eyes, "I have not-I have never had-the feelings you describe. I believe many people shrink from seeing suffering, and that it is not to their discredit that they do so shrink--" There was a defiant note in her voice, and quickly her companion registered the challenge, but he knew that this was no time to wage battle.

Mrs. Rebell continued: "I have never felt any horror of the sick and maimed, and I am not given to notice, with any repugnance, physical deformity." Then she stopped, for the strong lined face of her companion had become, as it were, convulsed with some deep feeling, to which she had no clue.

"Perhaps I will just tell you," he said, "why I believe Madame Sampiero may see you, apart from the fact that she desires to do so. Mrs. Turke was quite right," he went on with apparent irrelevancy, "I did know your mother. I had a sincere respect for her, and--" Again his thoughts seemed to take an abrupt turn. "I suppose you realise that I am Madame Sampiero's medical attendant,-I have no other standing in this house,-oh no, none in the world!"

Barbara divined the feeling which had prompted the last words to be bitter, bitter.

"I know," she said gently, "that you have been here a long time, and that my mother"-a very charming smile lighted up her sad face-"fully returned the feeling you seem to have had for her."

But Doctor McKirdy hardly seemed to hear the words, for he hurried on,

"One day, many years ago-I think before you were born-your mother and I went for a walk. It was about this time of the year-that is the time when keepers and vermin are busy. We were walking, I say, and I-young fool!-was full of pride, for it was the first walk a lady had ever deigned to take with me. I was uglier, yes, and I think even more repulsive-looking than I am now!" he gave Barbara a quick glance from under his shaggy eyebrows, but she made no sign of dissent, and he smiled, wryly.

"Well, as I say, I was pleased and proud, for I thought even more ill of women than I think now; but Mrs. Richard,-that's what we call her here, you know,-was so beautiful, such a contrast to myself: just a pretty doll, I took her to be, and as thoughts are free, looking at her there walking along, I was glad to know that I had all the sweets of her company and none of the bitter!"

And still Barbara Rebell, staring at him, astonished at his words, felt no offence.

"At last," he went on, "we reached the edge of the first down. I'll take you there some day. And we heard suddenly a piteous squeal: it was a puppy, a miserable little beastie, caught in a rabbit trap. You've never seen such a thing? Ay, that's well, I hope you never will: since that day you run no risk of doing so in Chancton Woods! 'Twas a sickening sight, one of the doggie's paws nearly off, and I felt sick-wanted to get away, to fetch someone along from the village. But Mrs. Richard-she was the tenderest creature alive, remember-never flinched. Those were not the days of gun ladies, but there, with me standing by, foolish, helpless, she put an end to the poor beastie-she put it out of its misery-with my knife too. Now that deserved the Humane Society's medal, eh? I never go by there without thinking of it. It's a pity," he said, in abrupt irrelevant conclusion, "that you're not more like her. I mean, as regards the outer woman"-he added hastily-"you are dark, like your father. Well now, I'll be calling Mrs. Turke, and she shall show you your rooms. We thought you would like those Mrs. Richard used to have when she came here. She preferred them to those below, to those grander apartments on Madam's floor."

"And when shall I see my godmother?"

Doctor McKirdy looked at her consideringly:

"Time enough when you've had a rest and a good supper. Never fear, she's as eager to see you as you are to see her," then, as he watched her walking back into the hall, he muttered under his breath, "There's something of Mrs. Richard there after all!"

* * *

A few moments later Barbara was following the stout housekeeper up the small winding stair which occupied, opposite the porch and vestibule, one of the four corners of the great hall, for those who had designed and built the newer portion of Chancton Priory had had no wish to sacrifice any portion of the space at their disposal to the exigencies of a grand staircase.

Mrs. Turke, on the first landing, called a halt, and Barbara looked about her with languid curiosity. To the right stretched a dark recess, evidently the music gallery which overlooked the hall; to the left a broad well-lighted corridor led, as Mrs. Rebell at once divined, if only because of the sudden silence which had fallen on her companion, to the apartments of the paralysed mistress of the Priory, to those of her godmother, Madame Sampiero.

Then Mrs. Turke, her loquacity stilled, laboured on up more narrow winding stairs till they reached the third storey, and, groping her way down many winding turnings, she finally ushered Mrs. Rebell with some ceremony-for every incident connected with daily life was to Mrs. Turke a matter of ritual-into a suite of low-ceilinged, plainly furnished rooms, of which the windows opened on to the Tudor stone balcony which was so distinctive and so beautiful a feature of the great house, as seen from the spreading lawns below.

* * *

Till Barbara found herself left solitary-she had declared herself well able, nay, desirous to unpack and dress alone-all that had taken place during the last hour had seemed hardly real.

It is said that the first feeling of those who, after being buffeted in the storm, tossed to and fro by the waves, are finally cast up on dry land, is not always one of relief. Barbara was no longer struggling in deep water, but she still felt terribly bruised and sore, and the smart of the injuries which had befallen her was still with her. Standing there, in the peaceful rooms which had been those of her own mother, a keen, almost a physical, longing for that same dear tender mother came suddenly over her.

Slowly she put on her one evening dress, a white gown which had been hurriedly made during the hours which had elapsed between the arrival of the Johnstones' invitation to Government House, and the leaving by her of her husband's plantation. Then she looked at herself in the glass, rather pitifully anxious to make a good impression on her godmother-on this paralysed woman, who, if the London lawyer said truly, was yet mentally so intensely and vividly alive.

To give herself courage, Barbara tried to remember that her hostess was not only of her own blood, but that she had been the one dear, intimate, and loyal friend of her mother-the only human being whom Richard Rebell's wife had refused to give up at his bidding, and even after Madame Sampiero and her kinsman had broken off all epistolary relationship. Why had they done so? Out of the past came the memory of sharp bitter words uttered by Barbara's father concerning Madame Sampiero and a certain Lord Bosworth. Then, more recently, when she was perhaps about thirteen, had come news of a child's death-the child had been called Julia-and Barbara's mother had wept long and bitterly, though admitting, in answer to her young daughter's frightened questions, that she had not known the little Julia.

Mrs. Rebell wrapped a shawl, one of Grace Johnstone's many thoughtful gifts, round her white gown, and so stepped through her window on to the stone balcony. Standing there, looking down on the great dark spaces below, she suddenly felt, for the first time, a deep sense of peace and of protection from past sorrows and indignities. For the first time also she felt that she had been justified in coming, and in leaving the man who,-alas! that it should be so, he being kinsman as well as husband,-had treated her so ill.

During the long, solitary journey home-if, indeed, England was home-there had been time for deep misgiving, for that quick examination of conscience which, in a sensitive, over-wrought nature, leads to self-accusation, to a fear of duty neglected. Barbara Rebell was but now emerging from what had been, and that over years, the imprisonment of both body and soul. Physically she had become free, but mentally she still had often during the last five weeks felt herself to be a bondswoman. During the voyage-aye, even during the two days spent by her in London-she had seemed to suffer more sentiently than when actually crushed under the heel of Pedro Rebell, the half-Spanish planter whose name seemed the only English thing about him. Since she had escaped from him, Barbara had felt increasingly the degradation of her hasty marriage to one whose kinship to herself, distant though it was, had seemed to her girlish inexperience an ample guarantee. That she had once loved the man,-if, indeed, the romantic, high-strung fancy which had swept over the newly-orphaned girl could be dignified by the name of love,-served but to increase her feeling of shame.

To-night, leaning over the stone balcony of Chancton Priory, Barbara remembered an incident which had of late receded in her mind: once more she seemed to feel the thrill of indignation and impotent anger which had overwhelmed her when she had found out, a few weeks after her wedding day, that the sum of money paid yearly by Madame Sampiero to Richard Rebell's account, and untouched by him for some ten years before his death, had been discovered and appropriated by her bridegroom, with, if she remembered rightly, the scornful assent of Madame Sampiero.

Again she turned hot, as though the episode had happened but yesterday instead of six long years before; and she asked herself, with sudden misgiving, how she had ever found the courage to petition her godmother for the shelter of her roof. She could never have brought herself to do so but for the kindly letter, accompanied by a gift of a hundred pounds, which had reached her once a year ever since her ill-fated marriage. These letters seemed to tell her that the old link which had bound her mother and Barbara Sampiero so closely had not snapped with death, with absence, or even, on the part of the writer of them, with physical disablement.

At last Barbara turned back into the room, and, taking up a candle, made her way slowly and noiselessly down the old house.

* * *

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