As a continuation of the Chetnole walk, here is a quick synopsis of Thomas Hardy’s short story ‘The First Countess of Wessex’. Based on Melbury House in Melbury Sampford.
Set in Kings-Hintock Court (aka Melbury House) a young girl of 11, Betty, is cowering in her room as her parents argue over an arranged marriage her mother, Sue Dornell, has planned. Her father, Squire Thomas Dornell, is not happy about the arrangement due to his daughter’s young age and the difference of age between her and the proposed suiter, Stephen Reynard. The argument leads to Betty’s father leaving Kings-Hintock for Falls Park (Mells Park in Somerset), his other residence. He was in a quandary as he missed his little girl but was unhappy with his wife.
The Squire had his own plans for his daughter and the intentions of his wife encouraged him to carry out a plan. His suitor was a son of a friend of his, Charley Phelipson who lived near Falls Park. After a few days, he set back off to Kings-Hintock to try and bring Betty back to Falls Park.
Unfortunately on his arrival both Betty and Mrs Dornell had left for London and that their return date was unknown. The Squire was worried that there was a possibility that Mrs Dornell had plans to visit Reynard on her trip, so decided to drown his sorrows with a party; ‘When the cats away…’ During the party he was informed of gossip over the recent betrothal of his daughter to Reynard. On the news, the Squire had a stroke.
Despite his health, and recuperating back at Falls Park, he was livid. After a few days he received a letter from his wife. She was gentle in her writing, aware of his health but made no apology of the marriage. Instead she informed Mr Dornell of the well to do path Reynard was creating for himself at court. She also consoled him with the information that nothing will change for some years as Betty was so young. Mrs Dornell was convinced she had done the right thing for her daughter.
The Squire’s health was deteriorating and Mrs Dornell was not cold hearted. She missed her husband and wanted to care for him which led her to visit him Falls Park. However, her life was at Kings-Hintock and so she continued to live there with Betty. A few years passed and Betty came of age when she finished schooling. She had grown into a young woman but remained at Kings-Hintock where her father promised to visit. On one return the Squire arrived accompanied by Phelipson. His main purpose was to show his wife what a perfect match for Betty he would have been and encouraged Betty to take part in his plan and to pretend to fall for him. She played her part well, but Mrs Dornell knew there was no turning back and asked the Squire to remove him.
Mrs Dornell knew the time was approaching when she would have to fulfill her plans and Betty would have to leave with Reynard. Reynard was also becoming impatient. There had already been a delay caused by Betty herself claiming she was too young, but she was now approaching her 18th birthday and the excuses could not continue. On following Betty into the gardens to speak to her, she secretly discovered her with Phelipson. This was the first time she doubted her previous actions.
Soon after, both Mr and Mrs Dornell and Betty received a letter form Reynard explaining that he was coming to collect her. Betty was distraught and with help from her mother Reynard was delayed on account of the Squire needing to be consulted. Mrs Dornell was worried about Betty and invited her for a ride. As they rode through the village Betty spotted a girl she knew sitting at her cottage window covered in scales due to small-pox. Her mother was oblivious, so Betty asked her to stop the carriage so she could visit. Although suspicious Mrs Dornell let the event occur. Moments later Betty reappeared happy with her accomplishments and declared that she had kissed the girl and so now had small-pox meaning Reynard would not want to go near her.
Back in Falls Park, the Squire had received the letter form Reynard and decided to travel to Bristol to address him in person. His appeal to Reynard fell on deaf ears and instead Reynard demanded that their arrangement go ahead and that he would travel to Kings-Hintock the next day. Dornell struggled on the journey home. His heath was failing and he only just made it back to Falls Park. Worried about Reynard’s actions Dornell sent his servant, Tupcombe to Kings-Hintock to try delay Reynard’s plans and to deliver a letter to his wife. On arrival, Tupcombe hid in the bushes to assess the situation and heard the tread of a horse behind him. Thinking it was Reynard, he was surprised to discover it was Phelipson, who ignored the front door to the house, and slipped around the side. Tupcombe followed him to discover a ladder leading down from Betty’s window. He then watched in awe as Betty descended the ladder, climbed upon Philipson’s horse and escaped. Reynard quickly delivered the letter to Mrs Dornell’s servants to pass on and immediately returned back to Falls Park. Half way home he stopped for refreshment, only to encounter Reynard travelling the other way.
Mrs Dornell, back in the main house, discovered her daughter’s empty room but assumed she had received a note of her father’s deteriorating health and traveled to him ahead. On her own journey she also met Reynard and explained that they would all return to Kings-Hintock in due course and he could go ahead and wait there. But on Mrs Dornell arriving at Falls Park there was no Betty, just a very poorly Squire who died before dawn that day.
Meanwhile, Betty travelling in the darkness with her lover, started to feel unwell and asked to dismount. As she took off her cloak, Phelipson was disgusted at the sight of her face as the small-pox had taken hold. In his shallow nature he wanted nothing to do with her and so immediately rode her back, spotty and broken hearted, to King’s-Hintock. Feeling poorly and sad, she explored the house, only to find a man and not her own mother.
The man was Reynard, waiting patiently for their return. He immediately took care of her, taking her back to bed and showed her nothing but kindness. However, knowing her mother’s wishes were that they were not to meet yet, and assured that Betty was safe, he respectfully retreated. Mrs Dornell returned to Kings-Hintock, full of love for her late husband and wanted to fulfil his wishes, deterring Betty from her marriage until her 19th birthday.
Nevertheless, the soon to be married couple continued to correspond and in the summer months, the widow noticed a change in her daughter’s body. Betty confessed to her mother about many secret meetings between herself and Reynard, and it was clear that they had fallen in love with each other.
When Reynard died, Betty wrote him an epitaph in which she described him as one of the best fathers, husbands and friends anyone could wish for.