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Utu: A Story of Love, Hate and Revenge

Chapter I. The Radcliffes of Radcliffe Hall

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Chapter I. The Radcliffes of Radcliffe Hall.

Alackaday, Monsieur Jacques. Like your polite countrymen, you are somewhat given to flattery, I ween.’

‘Nay, Mdlle., it is not so, ma foi4! I speak but the truth, and thine own mirror will bear out my words.’

The speakers, two young people of apparently very different stations in life, were standing beside a sheltered training wall in a well kept orchard back of an old-fashioned country mansion. The damsel—who held in her taper hands a rustic basket which her companion was leisurely filling—was in the bloom of womanhood. Her garden hat, cast aside for the nonce, left exposed to view a low-browed, finely-featured oval face, surmounted by a lofty crown of raven hair, and illumined by uncommonly fine dark eyes. Just now her full red lips were parted in a half smile, displaying a fine set of ivories, while a rosy glow mantling her cheek enhanced her beauty. She was attired according to the mode of the period—18th Century—in a heavy brocade with stiff farthingale5, but no device of fashion could conceal the fine development or supple grace of her tall and elegant figure. The rich lace of her elbow sleeves falling back as she elevated her basket displayed to advantage a pair of rounded arms, creamy and dimpled, and her pose was very seductive. Her beauty was of a warm Southern type, her manners extremely fascinating, though at the same time imperious. Altogether she was a dangerously attractive companion for a young man whose position, as denoted by his raiment, was evidently inferior. He was apparently some years her senior, and wore the unpretentious garb of a domestic. There was nothing servile in his manners, however, nor vulgar in his appearance. In other habiliments he might even have challenged comparison with many a beau of the time, and his face—which had a foreign cast, though it would have been difficult to fix his nationality—was distinctly handsome, albeit his bold black eyes were set too near each other for it to be entirely trustworthy. It was dark-skinned, clean shaven, and crowned with a modest peruke6. He was standing a little above the young lady on the garden steps, and every now and again as he stooped over her to place the gathered fruit in her upheld basket, he paused to make some remark, while his burning eyes spoke undisguised admiration, which apparently did not displease, although she deprecated its verbal expression.

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‘It is a beauty truly. Its cheek is only less lovely than thine own, Mdlle.’

It is a beauty truly. Its cheek is only less lovely than thine own, Mdlle.’

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‘Methinks I see a lovely peach nestling yonder to your right, Mons. Jacques. Prithee gather it, and I will trouble thee no farther to-day.’

‘It is a beauty, truly. Its cheek is only less lovely than thine own, Mdlle.’ Then raising the beautiful fruit to his lips he lightly imprinted a kiss upon its ruddy cheek ere depositing it with the others, whispering as he did so with an impassioned glance. ‘Would that I could so easily—would that I might—would that I dared——’

‘You are overbold, Mons.,’ she interrupted, confusedly, yet not very indignant, it seemed.

At this moment an approaching footstep recalled them to themselves, and Mons. Jacques with perfect sang-froid turned once more to the steps; while, affecting not to hear the advancing step, the maiden recovered her self-possession.

‘How now, sirrah7? Art back already from the village? Thou art not wont to be so expeditious.’

The question proceeded from an elderly gentleman of evidently irascible temper, who, from a point of vantage, had for some moments been observing the movements of the pair with disapproving eyes. He was tall, thin, sallow, with dark restless eyes, a somewhat repellent countenance, and the bearing of one accustomed to rule.

The young people turned at his words, and with unembarrassed audacity, but in respectful tones, Jacques replied, ‘Pardon. Mons., I have not yet been to the village.’

‘And wherefore not, jackanapes8? Said I not the business brooked not delay?’

Before Jacques could reply the maiden interposed: ‘In sooth, my dear uncle, it is my fault solely. I met Mons. Jacques as I came hither and pressed him into my service. Pardon us both. I pray you.’

‘You are fortunate, Monsieur Jacques, in your advocate,’ said the old gentleman, with sarcastic emphasis upon the title. ‘Go now, and do my errand, I will assist my niece.’

‘If Mdlle. no longer requires my services, I am at your commands, sir,’ replied the young man, coolly.

‘You are quite at liberty. Go sir!’ said the young lady, hastily, with a quick glance of reproval; and the lackey, saluting her, turned slowly about, and with much deliberation took himself off, followed by a wrathful explosion from his master. He appeared not to hear it, however, though a close bystander might have seen a malevolent glance scintillate from his black eyes, as he muttered a curse beneath his breath.

‘Insolent rascal!’ raved the old gentleman. ‘Thou need'st teaching, methinks, thy true position, and the respect due to thy betters.’

‘Dear uncle,’ said the girl, soothingly, ‘It is wholly my fault. Blame not Jacques, who is, I have heard thee say, such an excellent valet.’

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‘Excellent fiddlesticks! Does that give him the right to bandy words with me, or to dance attendance upon thyself, Eleanor?’

‘Nay then, uncle. I have already said I sought his attendance.’

‘S'death! Has my brother brought thee up in such seclusion, Eleanor, that thou canst command no better cavalier than thine uncle's valet?’

‘I regard him not as a cavalier, uncle,’ said the girl, poutingly, ‘but I required assistance, and took the first that came in my way.’

‘Where, then, was the gardener and his minions? Zounds! they shall make way for others more attentive to duty.’

‘Prithee, uncle, make not others suffer for my offence. Come now,’ she added coaxingly, linking her arm in his—for hers was not a timid nature, and fearing nothing under the sun, she stood in no awe of her imperious uncle. ‘Come to yon garden seat and eat one of my peaches and forget unpleasant things, there's a good nunky.’

Her enticements succeeded, and he suffered himself to be drawn to the place indicated, protesting, however, as he tapped open his snuff-box, that his niece should know it was not seemly for a maid of quality to discourse familiarly with a menial. By degrees, however, his good humour returned, and in the chat which ensued he learned that since his sister-in-law's decease some two years previously his brother had shunned all society, and existence at Radcliffe Hall had in consequence become very monotonous. His own arrival from India, a week since, had formed a break, and one or two dinner-parties had followed, but still life at the Hall was the reverse of gay, and the humdrum routine of a country house unenlivened by the presence of a single guest, dreary in the extreme to a young woman of eager temperament, in perfect health, and craving for the excitement so congenial to the young and light-hearted.

Considering that until a few days previously they had never met since Eleanor's infancy, the girl already exercised a surprising influence upon the ‘Nabob9,’ as he had been dubbed in the neighbourhood, and his tone and manner were not only softened, but even affectionate as they chatted together. Finally, leading her back to the house, he delighted her by the assurance that the summer should end more gaily than it had begun.

‘Eleanor has never expressed herself dissatisfied, brother,’ said Mr Horace Radcliffe that same evening in answer to the Nabob when—Miss Radcliffe having retired from the dinner-table—the brothers were left to discuss their wine.

‘Maybe not, Horace. But the young naturally crave society, and if her guardians neglect to provide that which is suitable there is danger, great danger, with one of her temperament, of her finding that which is unsuitable.’

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‘Nay, there you do her injustice, brother. Pardon my saying it, but the maiden has been carefully trained, and though chafing some-what at control, is discreet and modest withal.’

‘God forbid that I should doubt it, Horace. But that is beside the question. Even for yourself the life of a recluse is inexpedient, and I now propose that a few guests be invited to end the summer here. This will in some measure prepare Eleanor for the London season, for it is my wish that we winter in town in order that she may see something of society. She is too bright a flower to be allowed to fade in solitude, or be plucked by some rustic hand. With her striking beauty she should create a sensation, and, with my wealth, ought to make a brilliant match. What say you?’

‘I can have no objection, Roger, if you desire it, although in good sooth, society has become very distasteful to myself.’

‘And, unless you rouse yourself will daily become more so, until you sink into misanthropy, which is neither a desirable condition to contemplate for yourself, nor a satisfactory prospect for your friends. I quite sympathise with your bereaved feelings, but lonely brooding will not restore the lost, and whilst you live you owe duties to the living. By the way, do you remember Bernard O'Halleran?’

‘In good sooth, do I. But he has long been dead. What of him?’

‘Nothing of him. But his son was a fellow passenger of mine on the stage coach from Portsmouth. I recognised him instantly by his likeness to his father. A fine young man with a commission in the Welsh Fusiliers. His regiment is now quartered in Ireland, but he has come over on holiday leave. I should like to invite him down if you are agreeable.’

‘Do so, Roger, by all means. I have never seen the lad, but if he resembles his father at all he could not be other than welcome. A hare-brained fellow was Barney O'Halleran. Recollect you the prank he played upon Master Thomas Webb at Westminster?’

‘Ay do I, and many another beside. His son, however, seems of somewhat less reckless temper, a fine young man and discreet, and withal a dashing officer. I would he had been left better provided for, but the O'Halleran fortunes are sadly decayed. But a truce to reminiscences. Come to the library, brother, and let us set to work at the invitations, for we have no time to lose.’ And dragging his more portly, but less energetic brother away, the Nabob sat down to his escritoire10, and dashed off note after note with an alacrity which betokened extensive business experience.

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‘In sooth, my dear uncle, it is my fault solely.’

In sooth, my dear uncle, it is my fault solely.’

4 I swear.

[Note added by Vicki Hughes as annotator]

5 A petticoat consisting of a framework of hoops, worn, especially in the 16th century, to expand a skirt at the hip line.

[Note added by Vicki Hughes as annotator]

6 A long curly wig worn by men in the 17th and 18th century.

[Note added by Vicki Hughes as annotator]

7 Sir; implying inferiority in the person addressed.

[Note added by Vicki Hughes as annotator]

8 An impudent or conceited person.

[Note added by Vicki Hughes as annotator]

9 Said originally of an Englishman grown rich in India.

[Note added by Vicki Hughes as annotator]

10 A writing table or desk.

[Note added by Vicki Hughes as annotator]