The Return of the Native (01 of 10)


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THE RETURN OF THE NATIVE
by Thomas Hardy
PREFACE
The date at which the following events are assumed to have occurred may
be set down as between 1840 and 1850, when the old watering place herein
called "Budmouth" still retained sufficient afterglow from its Georgian
gaiety and prestige to lend it an absorbing attractiveness to the
romantic and imaginative soul of a lonely dweller inland.
Under the general name of "Egdon Heath," which has been given to the
sombre scene of the story, are united or typified heaths of various real
names, to the number of at least a dozen; these being virtually one in
character and aspect, though their original unity, or partial unity, is
now somewhat disguised by intrusive strips and slices brought under the
plough with varying degrees of success, or planted to woodland.
It is pleasant to dream that some spot in the extensive tract whose
southwestern quarter is here described, may be the heath of that
traditionary King of Wessex—Lear.
July, 1895.
"To sorrow I bade good morrow,
And thought to leave her far away behind; But cheerly, cheerly,
She loves me dearly; She is so constant to me, and so kind.
I would deceive her, And so leave her,
But ah! she is so constant and so kind."
BOOK ONE — THE THREE WOMEN
1—A Face on Which Time Makes but Little Impression
A Saturday afternoon in November was approaching the time of twilight,
and the vast tract of unenclosed wild known as Egdon Heath embrowned
itself moment by moment. Overhead the hollow stretch of whitish cloud
shutting out the sky was as a tent which had the whole heath for its
floor.
The heaven being spread with this pallid screen and the earth with
the darkest vegetation, their meeting-line at the horizon was clearly
marked. In such contrast the heath wore the appearance of an instalment
of night which had taken up its place before its astronomical hour was
come: darkness had to a great extent arrived hereon, while day stood
distinct in the sky. Looking upwards, a furze-cutter would have been
inclined to continue work; looking down, he would have decided to
finish his faggot and go home. The distant rims of the world and of the
firmament seemed to be a division in time no less than a division in
matter. The face of the heath by its mere complexion added half an
hour to evening; it could in like manner retard the dawn, sadden noon,
anticipate the frowning of storms scarcely generated, and intensify the
opacity of a moonless midnight to a cause of shaking and dread.
In fact, precisely at this transitional point of its nightly roll into
darkness the great and particular glory of the Egdon waste began, and
nobody could be said to understand the heath who had not been there at
such a time. It could best be felt when it could not clearly be seen,
its complete effect and explanation lying in this and the succeeding
hours before the next dawn; then, and only then, did it tell its true
tale. The spot was, indeed, a near relation of night, and when night
showed itself an apparent tendency to gravitate together could be
perceived in its shades and the scene. The sombre stretch of rounds and
hollows seemed to rise and meet the evening gloom in pure sympathy, the
heath exhaling darkness as rapidly as the heavens precipitated it.
And so the obscurity in the air and the obscurity in the land closed
together in a black fraternization towards which each advanced halfway.
The place became full of a watchful intentness now; for when other
things sank blooding to sleep the heath appeared slowly to awake and
listen. Every night its Titanic form seemed to await something; but it
had waited thus, unmoved, during so many centuries, through the crises
of so many things, that it could only be imagined to await one last
crisis—the final overthrow.
It was a spot which returned upon the memory of those who loved it
with an aspect of peculiar and kindly congruity. Smiling champaigns of
flowers and fruit hardly do this, for they are permanently harmonious
only with an existence of better reputation as to its issues than the
present. Twilight combined with the scenery of Egdon Heath to evolve a
thing majestic without severity, impressive without showiness, emphatic
in its admonitions, grand in its simplicity. The qualifications which
frequently invest the facade of a prison with far more dignity than is
found in the facade of a palace double its size lent to this heath a
sublimity in which spots renowned for beauty of the accepted kind are
utterly wanting. Fair prospects wed happily with fair times; but alas,
if times be not fair! Men have oftener suffered from, the mockery of
a place too smiling for their reason than from the oppression of
surroundings oversadly tinged. Haggard Egdon appealed to a subtler and
scarcer instinct, to a more recently learnt emotion, than that which
responds to the sort of beauty called charming and fair.
Indeed, it is a question if the exclusive reign of this orthodox beauty
is not approaching its last quarter. The new Vale of Tempe may be a
gaunt waste in Thule; human souls may find themselves in closer and
closer harmony with external things wearing a sombreness distasteful to
our race when it was young. The time seems near, if it has not actually
arrived, when the chastened sublimity of a moor, a sea, or a mountain
will be all of nature that is absolutely in keeping with the moods
of the more thinking among mankind. And ultimately, to the commonest
tourist, spots like Iceland may become what the vineyards and myrtle
gardens of South Europe are to him now; and Heidelberg and Baden
be passed unheeded as he hastens from the Alps to the sand dunes of
Scheveningen.
The most thoroughgoing ascetic could feel that he had a natural right to
wander on Egdon—he was keeping within the line of legitimate indulgence
when he laid himself open to influences such as these. Colours and
beauties so far subdued were, at least, the birthright of all. Only in
summer days of highest feather did its mood touch the level of gaiety.
Intensity was more usually reached by way of the solemn than by way of
the brilliant, and such a sort of intensity was often arrived at
during winter darkness, tempests, and mists. Then Egdon was aroused to
reciprocity; for the storm was its lover, and the wind its friend.
Then it became the home of strange phantoms; and it was found to be the
hitherto unrecognized original of those wild regions of obscurity which
are vaguely felt to be compassing us about in midnight dreams of flight
and disaster, and are never thought of after the dream till revived by
scenes like this.
It was at present a place perfectly accordant with man's nature—neither
ghastly, hateful, nor ugly; neither commonplace, unmeaning, nor tame;
but, like man, slighted and enduring; and withal singularly colossal and
mysterious in its swarthy monotony. As with some persons who have long
lived apart, solitude seemed to look out of its countenance. It had a
lonely face, suggesting tragical possibilities.
This obscure, obsolete, superseded country figures in Domesday.
Its condition is recorded therein as that of heathy, furzy, briary
wilderness—"Bruaria." Then follows the length and breadth in leagues;
and, though some uncertainty exists as to the exact extent of this
ancient lineal measure, it appears from the figures that the area of
Egdon down to the present day has but little diminished. "Turbaria
Bruaria"—the right of cutting heath-turf—occurs in charters relating
to the district. "Overgrown with heth and mosse," says Leland of the
same dark sweep of country.
Here at least were intelligible facts regarding landscape—far-reaching
proofs productive of genuine satisfaction. The untameable, Ishmaelitish
thing that Egdon now was it always had been. Civilization was its enemy;
and ever since the beginning of vegetation its soil had worn the
same antique brown dress, the natural and invariable garment of the
particular formation. In its venerable one coat lay a certain vein of
satire on human vanity in clothes. A person on a heath in raiment of
modern cut and colours has more or less an anomalous look. We seem to
want the oldest and simplest human clothing where the clothing of the
earth is so primitive.
To recline on a stump of thorn in the central valley of Egdon, between
afternoon and night, as now, where the eye could reach nothing of the
world outside the summits and shoulders of heathland which filled the
whole circumference of its glance, and to know that everything around
and underneath had been from prehistoric times as unaltered as the stars
overhead, gave ballast to the mind adrift on change, and harassed by the
irrepressible New. The great inviolate place had an ancient permanence
which the sea cannot claim. Who can say of a particular sea that it is
old? Distilled by the sun, kneaded by the moon, it is renewed in a
year, in a day, or in an hour. The sea changed, the fields changed, the
rivers, the villages, and the people changed, yet Egdon remained. Those
surfaces were neither so steep as to be destructible by weather, nor so
flat as to be the victims of floods and deposits. With the exception of
an aged highway, and a still more aged barrow presently to be referred
to—themselves almost crystallized to natural products by long
continuance—even the trifling irregularities were not caused by
pickaxe, plough, or spade, but remained as the very finger-touches of
the last geological change.
The above-mentioned highway traversed the lower levels of the heath,
from one horizon to another. In many portions of its course it overlaid
an old vicinal way, which branched from the great Western road of the
Romans, the Via Iceniana, or Ikenild Street, hard by. On the evening
under consideration it would have been noticed that, though the gloom
had increased sufficiently to confuse the minor features of the heath,
the white surface of the road remained almost as clear as ever.
2—Humanity Appears upon the Scene, Hand in Hand with Trouble
Along the road walked an old man. He was white-headed as a mountain,
bowed in the shoulders, and faded in general aspect. He wore a glazed
hat, an ancient boat-cloak, and shoes; his brass buttons bearing an
anchor upon their face. In his hand was a silver-headed walking stick,
which he used as a veritable third leg, perseveringly dotting the ground
with its point at every few inches' interval. One would have said that
he had been, in his day, a naval officer of some sort or other.
Before him stretched the long, laborious road, dry, empty, and white.
It was quite open to the heath on each side, and bisected that vast dark
surface like the parting-line on a head of black hair, diminishing and
bending away on the furthest horizon.
The old man frequently stretched his eyes ahead to gaze over the tract
that he had yet to traverse. At length he discerned, a long distance
in front of him, a moving spot, which appeared to be a vehicle, and
it proved to be going the same way as that in which he himself was
journeying. It was the single atom of life that the scene contained, and
it only served to render the general loneliness more evident. Its rate
of advance was slow, and the old man gained upon it sensibly.
When he drew nearer he perceived it to be a spring van, ordinary in
shape, but singular in colour, this being a lurid red. The driver walked
beside it; and, like his van, he was completely red. One dye of that
tincture covered his clothes, the cap upon his head, his boots, his
face, and his hands. He was not temporarily overlaid with the colour; it
permeated him.
The old man knew the meaning of this. The traveller with the cart was a
reddleman—a person whose vocation it was to supply farmers with redding
for their sheep. He was one of a class rapidly becoming extinct in
Wessex, filling at present in the rural world the place which, during
the last century, the dodo occupied in the world of animals. He is a
curious, interesting, and nearly perished link between obsolete forms of
life and those which generally prevail.
The decayed officer, by degrees, came up alongside his fellow-wayfarer,
and wished him good evening. The reddleman turned his head, and replied
in sad and occupied tones. He was young, and his face, if not exactly
handsome, approached so near to handsome that nobody would have
contradicted an assertion that it really was so in its natural colour.
His eye, which glared so strangely through his stain, was in itself
attractive—keen as that of a bird of prey, and blue as autumn mist. He
had neither whisker nor moustache, which allowed the soft curves of the
lower part of his face to be apparent. His lips were thin, and though,
as it seemed, compressed by thought, there was a pleasant twitch at
their corners now and then. He was clothed throughout in a tight-fitting
suit of corduroy, excellent in quality, not much worn, and well-chosen
for its purpose, but deprived of its original colour by his trade. It
showed to advantage the good shape of his figure. A certain well-to-do
air about the man suggested that he was not poor for his degree.
The natural query of an observer would have been, Why should such
a promising being as this have hidden his prepossessing exterior by
adopting that singular occupation?
After replying to the old man's greeting he showed no inclination to
continue in talk, although they still walked side by side, for the elder
traveller seemed to desire company. There were no sounds but that of
the booming wind upon the stretch of tawny herbage around them, the
crackling wheels, the tread of the men, and the footsteps of the two
shaggy ponies which drew the van. They were small, hardy animals, of a
breed between Galloway and Exmoor, and were known as "heath-croppers"
here.
Now, as they thus pursued their way, the reddleman occasionally left his
companion's side, and, stepping behind the van, looked into its interior
through a small window. The look was always anxious. He would then
return to the old man, who made another remark about the state of the
country and so on, to which the reddleman again abstractedly replied,
and then again they would lapse into silence. The silence conveyed to
neither any sense of awkwardness; in these lonely places wayfarers,
after a first greeting, frequently plod on for miles without speech;
contiguity amounts to a tacit conversation where, otherwise than in
cities, such contiguity can be put an end to on the merest inclination,
and where not to put an end to it is intercourse in itself.
Possibly these two might not have spoken again till their parting, had
it not been for the reddleman's visits to his van. When he returned
from his fifth time of looking in the old man said, "You have something
inside there besides your load?"
"Yes."
"Somebody who wants looking after?"
"Yes."
Not long after this a faint cry sounded from the interior. The reddleman
hastened to the back, looked in, and came away again.
"You have a child there, my man?"
"No, sir, I have a woman."
"The deuce you have! Why did she cry out?"
"Oh, she has fallen asleep, and not being used to traveling, she's
uneasy, and keeps dreaming."
"A young woman?"
"Yes, a young woman."
"That would have interested me forty years ago. Perhaps she's your
wife?"
"My wife!" said the other bitterly. "She's above mating with such as I.
But there's no reason why I should tell you about that."
"That's true. And there's no reason why you should not. What harm can I
do to you or to her?"
The reddleman looked in the old man's face. "Well, sir," he said at
last, "I knew her before today, though perhaps it would have been better
if I had not. But she's nothing to me, and I am nothing to her; and she
wouldn't have been in my van if any better carriage had been there to
take her."
"Where, may I ask?"
"At Anglebury."
"I know the town well. What was she doing there?"
"Oh, not much—to gossip about. However, she's tired to death now, and
not at all well, and that's what makes her so restless. She dropped off
into a nap about an hour ago, and 'twill do her good."
"A nice-looking girl, no doubt?"
"You would say so."
The other traveller turned his eyes with interest towards the van
window, and, without withdrawing them, said, "I presume I might look in
upon her?"
"No," said the reddleman abruptly. "It is getting too dark for you to
see much of her; and, more than that, I have no right to allow you.
Thank God she sleeps so well, I hope she won't wake till she's home."
"Who is she? One of the neighbourhood?"
"'Tis no matter who, excuse me."
"It is not that girl of Blooms-End, who has been talked about more or
less lately? If so, I know her; and I can guess what has happened."
"'Tis no matter....Now, sir, I am sorry to say that we shall soon have
to part company. My ponies are tired, and I have further to go, and I am
going to rest them under this bank for an hour."
The elder traveller nodded his head indifferently, and the reddleman
turned his horses and van in upon the turf, saying, "Good night." The
old man replied, and proceeded on his way as before.
The reddleman watched his form as it diminished to a speck on the road
and became absorbed in the thickening films of night. He then took
some hay from a truss which was slung up under the van, and, throwing a
portion of it in front of the horses, made a pad of the rest, which he
laid on the ground beside his vehicle. Upon this he sat down, leaning
his back against the wheel. From the interior a low soft breathing came
to his ear. It appeared to satisfy him, and he musingly surveyed the
scene, as if considering the next step that he should take.
To do things musingly, and by small degrees, seemed, indeed, to be a
duty in the Egdon valleys at this transitional hour, for there was that
in the condition of the heath itself which resembled protracted and
halting dubiousness. It was the quality of the repose appertaining
to the scene. This was not the repose of actual stagnation, but the
apparent repose of incredible slowness. A condition of healthy life so
nearly resembling the torpor of death is a noticeable thing of its
sort; to exhibit the inertness of the desert, and at the same time to be
exercising powers akin to those of the meadow, and even of the forest,
awakened in those who thought of it the attentiveness usually engendered
by understatement and reserve.
The scene before the reddleman's eyes was a gradual series of ascents
from the level of the road backward into the heart of the heath. It
embraced hillocks, pits, ridges, acclivities, one behind the other, till
all was finished by a high hill cutting against the still light sky.
The traveller's eye hovered about these things for a time, and finally
settled upon one noteworthy object up there. It was a barrow. This bossy
projection of earth above its natural level occupied the loftiest ground
of the loneliest height that the heath contained. Although from the
vale it appeared but as a wart on an Atlantean brow, its actual bulk was
great. It formed the pole and axis of this heathery world.
As the resting man looked at the barrow he became aware that its summit,
hitherto the highest object in the whole prospect round, was surmounted
by something higher. It rose from the semiglobular mound like a spike
from a helmet. The first instinct of an imaginative stranger might have
been to suppose it the person of one of the Celts who built the barrow,
so far had all of modern date withdrawn from the scene. It seemed a sort
of last man among them, musing for a moment before dropping into eternal
night with the rest of his race.
There the form stood, motionless as the hill beneath. Above the plain
rose the hill, above the hill rose the barrow, and above the barrow rose
the figure. Above the figure was nothing that could be mapped elsewhere
than on a celestial globe.
Such a perfect, delicate, and necessary finish did the figure give
to the dark pile of hills that it seemed to be the only obvious
justification of their outline. Without it, there was the dome without
the lantern; with it the architectural demands of the mass were
satisfied. The scene was strangely homogeneous, in that the vale, the
upland, the barrow, and the figure above it amounted only to unity.
Looking at this or that member of the group was not observing a complete
thing, but a fraction of a thing.
The form was so much like an organic part of the entire motionless
structure that to see it move would have impressed the mind as a strange
phenomenon. Immobility being the chief characteristic of that whole
which the person formed portion of, the discontinuance of immobility in
any quarter suggested confusion.
Yet that is what happened. The figure perceptibly gave up its fixity,
shifted a step or two, and turned round. As if alarmed, it descended on
the right side of the barrow, with the glide of a water-drop down a bud,
and then vanished. The movement had been sufficient to show more clearly
the characteristics of the figure, and that it was a woman's.
The reason of her sudden displacement now appeared. With her dropping
out of sight on the right side, a newcomer, bearing a burden, protruded
into the sky on the left side, ascended the tumulus, and deposited the
burden on the top. A second followed, then a third, a fourth, a fifth,
and ultimately the whole barrow was peopled with burdened figures.
The only intelligible meaning in this sky-backed pantomime of
silhouettes was that the woman had no relation to the forms who had
taken her place, was sedulously avoiding these, and had come thither
for another object than theirs. The imagination of the observer clung
by preference to that vanished, solitary figure, as to something more
interesting, more important, more likely to have a history worth knowing
than these newcomers, and unconsciously regarded them as intruders. But
they remained, and established themselves; and the lonely person who
hitherto had been queen of the solitude did not at present seem likely
to return.
3—The Custom of the Country
Had a looker-on been posted in the immediate vicinity of the barrow,
he would have learned that these persons were boys and men of the
neighbouring hamlets. Each, as he ascended the barrow, had been heavily
laden with furze faggots, carried upon the shoulder by means of a long
stake sharpened at each end for impaling them easily—two in front and
two behind. They came from a part of the heath a quarter of a mile to
the rear, where furze almost exclusively prevailed as a product.
Every individual was so involved in furze by his method of carrying the
faggots that he appeared like a bush on legs till he had thrown them
down. The party had marched in trail, like a travelling flock of sheep;
that is to say, the strongest first, the weak and young behind.
The loads were all laid together, and a pyramid of furze thirty feet in
circumference now occupied the crown of the tumulus, which was known as
Rainbarrow for many miles round. Some made themselves busy with matches,
and in selecting the driest tufts of furze, others in loosening the
bramble bonds which held the faggots together. Others, again, while this
was in progress, lifted their eyes and swept the vast expanse of country
commanded by their position, now lying nearly obliterated by shade. In
the valleys of the heath nothing save its own wild face was visible at
any time of day; but this spot commanded a horizon enclosing a tract of
far extent, and in many cases lying beyond the heath country. None of
its features could be seen now, but the whole made itself felt as a
vague stretch of remoteness.
While the men and lads were building the pile, a change took place in
the mass of shade which denoted the distant landscape. Red suns and
tufts of fire one by one began to arise, flecking the whole country
round. They were the bonfires of other parishes and hamlets that were
engaged in the same sort of commemoration. Some were distant, and stood
in a dense atmosphere, so that bundles of pale straw-like beams radiated
around them in the shape of a fan. Some were large and near, glowing
scarlet-red from the shade, like wounds in a black hide. Some were
Maenades, with winy faces and blown hair. These tinctured the silent
bosom of the clouds above them and lit up their ephemeral caves, which
seemed thenceforth to become scalding caldrons. Perhaps as many
as thirty bonfires could be counted within the whole bounds of the
district; and as the hour may be told on a clock-face when the figures
themselves are invisible, so did the men recognize the locality of each
fire by its angle and direction, though nothing of the scenery could be
viewed.
The first tall flame from Rainbarrow sprang into the sky, attracting all
eyes that had been fixed on the distant conflagrations back to their own
attempt in the same kind. The cheerful blaze streaked the inner surface
of the human circle—now increased by other stragglers, male and
female—with its own gold livery, and even overlaid the dark turf around
with a lively luminousness, which softened off into obscurity where the
barrow rounded downwards out of sight. It showed the barrow to be the
segment of a globe, as perfect as on the day when it was thrown up, even
the little ditch remaining from which the earth was dug. Not a plough
had ever disturbed a grain of that stubborn soil. In the heath's
barrenness to the farmer lay its fertility to the historian. There had
been no obliteration, because there had been no tending.
It seemed as if the bonfire-makers were standing in some radiant upper
story of the world, detached from and independent of the dark stretches
below. The heath down there was now a vast abyss, and no longer a
continuation of what they stood on; for their eyes, adapted to
the blaze, could see nothing of the deeps beyond its influence.
Occasionally, it is true, a more vigorous flare than usual from their
faggots sent darting lights like aides-de-camp down the inclines to some
distant bush, pool, or patch of white sand, kindling these to replies
of the same colour, till all was lost in darkness again. Then the whole
black phenomenon beneath represented Limbo as viewed from the brink by
the sublime Florentine in his vision, and the muttered articulations of
the wind in the hollows were as complaints and petitions from the "souls
of mighty worth" suspended therein.
It was as if these men and boys had suddenly dived into past ages, and
fetched therefrom an hour and deed which had before been familiar with
this spot. The ashes of the original British pyre which blazed from that
summit lay fresh and undisturbed in the barrow beneath their tread. The
flames from funeral piles long ago kindled there had shone down upon the
lowlands as these were shining now. Festival fires to Thor and Woden had
followed on the same ground and duly had their day. Indeed, it is pretty
well known that such blazes as this the heathmen were now enjoying are
rather the lineal descendants from jumbled Druidical rites and Saxon
ceremonies than the invention of popular feeling about Gunpowder Plot.
Moreover to light a fire is the instinctive and resistant act of man
when, at the winter ingress, the curfew is sounded throughout Nature.
It indicates a spontaneous, Promethean rebelliousness against that fiat
that this recurrent season shall bring foul times, cold darkness, misery
and death. Black chaos comes, and the fettered gods of the earth say,
Let there be light.
The brilliant lights and sooty shades which struggled upon the skin
and clothes of the persons standing round caused their lineaments and
general contours to be drawn with Dureresque vigour and dash. Yet the
permanent moral expression of each face it was impossible to discover,
for as the nimble flames towered, nodded, and swooped through the
surrounding air, the blots of shade and flakes of light upon the
countenances of the group changed shape and position endlessly. All
was unstable; quivering as leaves, evanescent as lightning. Shadowy
eye-sockets, deep as those of a death's head, suddenly turned into pits
of lustre: a lantern-jaw was cavernous, then it was shining; wrinkles
were emphasized to ravines, or obliterated entirely by a changed ray.
Nostrils were dark wells; sinews in old necks were gilt mouldings;
things with no particular polish on them were glazed; bright objects,
such as the tip of a furze-hook one of the men carried, were as glass;
eyeballs glowed like little lanterns. Those whom Nature had depicted as
merely quaint became grotesque, the grotesque became preternatural; for
all was in extremity.
Hence it may be that the face of an old man, who had like others been
called to the heights by the rising flames, was not really the mere nose
and chin that it appeared to be, but an appreciable quantity of human
countenance. He stood complacently sunning himself in the heat. With
a speaker, or stake, he tossed the outlying scraps of fuel into the
conflagration, looking at the midst of the pile, occasionally lifting
his eyes to measure the height of the flame, or to follow the great
sparks which rose with it and sailed away into darkness. The beaming
sight, and the penetrating warmth, seemed to breed in him a cumulative
cheerfulness, which soon amounted to delight. With his stick in his hand
he began to jig a private minuet, a bunch of copper seals shining and
swinging like a pendulum from under his waistcoat: he also began to
sing, in the voice of a bee up a flue—
"The king' call'd down' his no-bles all', By one', by two', by three';
Earl Mar'-shal, I'll' go shrive'-the queen', And thou' shalt wend' with me'.
"A boon', a boon', quoth Earl' Mar-shal', And fell' on his bend'-ded knee',
That what'-so-e'er' the queen' shall say', No harm' there-of' may be'."
Want of breath prevented a continuance of the song; and the breakdown
attracted the attention of a firm-standing man of middle age, who kept
each corner of his crescent-shaped mouth rigorously drawn back into his
cheek, as if to do away with any suspicion of mirthfulness which might
erroneously have attached to him.
"A fair stave, Grandfer Cantle; but I am afeard 'tis too much for
the mouldy weasand of such a old man as you," he said to the wrinkled
reveller. "Dostn't wish th' wast three sixes again, Grandfer, as you was
when you first learnt to sing it?"
"Hey?" said Grandfer Cantle, stopping in his dance.
"Dostn't wish wast young again, I say? There's a hole in thy poor
bellows nowadays seemingly."
"But there's good art in me? If I couldn't make a little wind go a
long ways I should seem no younger than the most aged man, should I,
Timothy?"
"And how about the new-married folks down there at the Quiet Woman Inn?"
the other inquired, pointing towards a dim light in the direction of the
distant highway, but considerably apart from where the reddleman was
at that moment resting. "What's the rights of the matter about 'em? You
ought to know, being an understanding man."
"But a little rakish, hey? I own to it. Master Cantle is that, or he's
nothing. Yet 'tis a gay fault, neigbbour Fairway, that age will cure."
"I heard that they were coming home tonight. By this time they must have
come. What besides?"
"The next thing is for us to go and wish 'em joy, I suppose?"
"Well, no."
"No? Now, I thought we must. I must, or 'twould be very unlike me—the
first in every spree that's going!
"Do thou' put on' a fri'-ar's coat', And I'll' put on' a-no'-ther,
And we' will to' Queen Ele'anor go', Like Fri'ar and' his bro'ther.
I met Mis'ess Yeobright, the young bride's aunt, last night, and she
told me that her son Clym was coming home a' Christmas. Wonderful
clever, 'a believe—ah, I should like to have all that's under that
young man's hair. Well, then, I spoke to her in my well-known merry
way, and she said, 'O that what's shaped so venerable should talk like a
fool!'—that's what she said to me. I don't care for her, be jowned if I
do, and so I told her. 'Be jowned if I care for 'ee,' I said. I had her
there—hey?"
"I rather think she had you," said Fairway.
"No," said Grandfer Cantle, his countenance slightly flagging. "'Tisn't
so bad as that with me?"
"Seemingly 'tis, however, is it because of the wedding that Clym is
coming home a' Christmas—to make a new arrangement because his mother
is now left in the house alone?"
"Yes, yes—that's it. But, Timothy, hearken to me," said the Grandfer
earnestly. "Though known as such a joker, I be an understanding man if
you catch me serious, and I am serious now. I can tell 'ee lots about
the married couple. Yes, this morning at six o'clock they went up the
country to do the job, and neither vell nor mark have been seen of 'em
since, though I reckon that this afternoon has brought 'em home again
man and woman—wife, that is. Isn't it spoke like a man, Timothy, and
wasn't Mis'ess Yeobright wrong about me?"
"Yes, it will do. I didn't know the two had walked together since last
fall, when her aunt forbad the banns. How long has this new set-to been
in mangling then? Do you know, Humphrey?"
"Yes, how long?" said Grandfer Cantle smartly, likewise turning to
Humphrey. "I ask that question."
"Ever since her aunt altered her mind, and said she might have the man
after all," replied Humphrey, without removing his eyes from the fire.
He was a somewhat solemn young fellow, and carried the hook and leather
gloves of a furze-cutter, his legs, by reason of that occupation, being
sheathed in bulging leggings as stiff as the Philistine's greaves of
brass. "That's why they went away to be married, I count. You see, after
kicking up such a nunny-watch and forbidding the banns 'twould have made
Mis'ess Yeobright seem foolish-like to have a banging wedding in the
same parish all as if she'd never gainsaid it."
"Exactly—seem foolish-like; and that's very bad for the poor things
that be so, though I only guess as much, to be sure," said Grandfer
Cantle, still strenuously preserving a sensible bearing and mien.
"Ah, well, I was at church that day," said Fairway, "which was a very
curious thing to happen."
"If 'twasn't my name's Simple," said the Grandfer emphatically. "I
ha'n't been there to-year; and now the winter is a-coming on I won't say
I shall."
"I ha'n't been these three years," said Humphrey; "for I'm so dead
sleepy of a Sunday; and 'tis so terrible far to get there; and when you
do get there 'tis such a mortal poor chance that you'll be chose for up
above, when so many bain't, that I bide at home and don't go at all."
"I not only happened to be there," said Fairway, with a fresh collection
of emphasis, "but I was sitting in the same pew as Mis'ess Yeobright.
And though you may not see it as such, it fairly made my blood run cold
to hear her. Yes, it is a curious thing; but it made my blood run
cold, for I was close at her elbow." The speaker looked round upon
the bystanders, now drawing closer to hear him, with his lips gathered
tighter than ever in the rigorousness of his descriptive moderation.
"'Tis a serious job to have things happen to 'ee there," said a woman
behind.
"'Ye are to declare it,' was the parson's words," Fairway continued.
"And then up stood a woman at my side—a-touching of me. 'Well, be
damned if there isn't Mis'ess Yeobright a-standing up,' I said to
myself. Yes, neighbours, though I was in the temple of prayer that's
what I said. 'Tis against my conscience to curse and swear in company,
and I hope any woman here will overlook it. Still what I did say I did
say, and 'twould be a lie if I didn't own it."
"So 'twould, neighbour Fairway."
"'Be damned if there isn't Mis'ess Yeobright a-standing up,' I said,"
the narrator repeated, giving out the bad word with the same passionless
severity of face as before, which proved how entirely necessity and not
gusto had to do with the iteration. "And the next thing I heard was, 'I
forbid the banns,' from her. 'I'll speak to you after the service,'
said the parson, in quite a homely way—yes, turning all at once into a
common man no holier than you or I. Ah, her face was pale! Maybe you
can call to mind that monument in Weatherbury church—the cross-legged
soldier that have had his arm knocked away by the schoolchildren? Well,
he would about have matched that woman's face, when she said, 'I forbid
the banns.'"
The audience cleared their throats and tossed a few stalks into the
fire, not because these deeds were urgent, but to give themselves time
to weigh the moral of the story.
"I'm sure when I heard they'd been forbid I felt as glad as if anybody
had gied me sixpence," said an earnest voice—that of Olly Dowden, a
woman who lived by making heath brooms, or besoms. Her nature was to be
civil to enemies as well as to friends, and grateful to all the world
for letting her remain alive.
"And now the maid have married him just the same," said Humphrey.
"After that Mis'ess Yeobright came round and was quite agreeable,"
Fairway resumed, with an unheeding air, to show that his words were no
appendage to Humphrey's, but the result of independent reflection.
"Supposing they were ashamed, I don't see why they shouldn't have done
it here-right," said a wide-spread woman whose stays creaked like
shoes whenever she stooped or turned. "'Tis well to call the neighbours
together and to hae a good racket once now and then; and it may as
well be when there's a wedding as at tide-times. I don't care for close
ways."
"Ah, now, you'd hardly believe it, but I don't care for gay weddings,"
said Timothy Fairway, his eyes again travelling round. "I hardly blame
Thomasin Yeobright and neighbour Wildeve for doing it quiet, if I must
own it. A wedding at home means five and six-handed reels by the hour;
and they do a man's legs no good when he's over forty."
"True. Once at the woman's house you can hardly say nay to being one in
a jig, knowing all the time that you be expected to make yourself worth
your victuals."
"You be bound to dance at Christmas because 'tis the time o' year; you
must dance at weddings because 'tis the time o' life. At christenings
folk will even smuggle in a reel or two, if 'tis no further on than the
first or second chiel. And this is not naming the songs you've got to
sing....For my part I like a good hearty funeral as well as anything.
You've as splendid victuals and drink as at other parties, and even
better. And it don't wear your legs to stumps in talking over a poor
fellow's ways as it do to stand up in hornpipes."
"Nine folks out of ten would own 'twas going too far to dance then, I
suppose?" suggested Grandfer Cantle.
"'Tis the only sort of party a staid man can feel safe at after the mug
have been round a few times."
"Well, I can't understand a quiet ladylike little body like Tamsin
Yeobright caring to be married in such a mean way," said Susan Nunsuch,
the wide woman, who preferred the original subject. "'Tis worse than the
poorest do. And I shouldn't have cared about the man, though some may
say he's good-looking."
"To give him his due he's a clever, learned fellow in his way—a'most as
clever as Clym Yeobright used to be. He was brought up to better things
than keeping the Quiet Woman. An engineer—that's what the man was, as
we know; but he threw away his chance, and so 'a took a public house to
live. His learning was no use to him at all."
"Very often the case," said Olly, the besom-maker. "And yet how people
do strive after it and get it! The class of folk that couldn't use to
make a round O to save their bones from the pit can write their names
now without a sputter of the pen, oftentimes without a single blot—what
do I say?—why, almost without a desk to lean their stomachs and elbows
upon."
"True—'tis amazing what a polish the world have been brought to," said
Humphrey.
"Why, afore I went a soldier in the Bang-up Locals (as we was called),
in the year four," chimed in Grandfer Cantle brightly, "I didn't know no
more what the world was like than the commonest man among ye. And now,
jown it all, I won't say what I bain't fit for, hey?"
"Couldst sign the book, no doubt," said Fairway, "if wast young enough
to join hands with a woman again, like Wildeve and Mis'ess Tamsin,
which is more than Humph there could do, for he follows his father in
learning. Ah, Humph, well I can mind when I was married how I zid thy
father's mark staring me in the face as I went to put down my name. He
and your mother were the couple married just afore we were and there
stood they father's cross with arms stretched out like a great banging
scarecrow. What a terrible black cross that was—thy father's very
likeness in en! To save my soul I couldn't help laughing when I zid en,
though all the time I was as hot as dog-days, what with the marrying,
and what with the woman a-hanging to me, and what with Jack Changley
and a lot more chaps grinning at me through church window. But the next
moment a strawmote would have knocked me down, for I called to mind
that if thy father and mother had had high words once, they'd been at
it twenty times since they'd been man and wife, and I zid myself as the
next poor stunpoll to get into the same mess....Ah—well, what a day
'twas!"
"Wildeve is older than Tamsin Yeobright by a good-few summers. A pretty
maid too she is. A young woman with a home must be a fool to tear her
smock for a man like that."
The speaker, a peat- or turf-cutter, who had newly joined the group,
carried across his shoulder the singular heart-shaped spade of large
dimensions used in that species of labour, and its well-whetted edge
gleamed like a silver bow in the beams of the fire.
"A hundred maidens would have had him if he'd asked 'em," said the wide
woman.
"Didst ever know a man, neighbour, that no woman at all would marry?"
inquired Humphrey.
"I never did," said the turf-cutter.
"Nor I," said another.
"Nor I," said Grandfer Cantle.
"Well, now, I did once," said Timothy Fairway, adding more firmness to
one of his legs. "I did know of such a man. But only once, mind." He
gave his throat a thorough rake round, as if it were the duty of every
person not to be mistaken through thickness of voice. "Yes, I knew of
such a man," he said.
"And what ghastly gallicrow might the poor fellow have been like, Master
Fairway?" asked the turf-cutter.
"Well, 'a was neither a deaf man, nor a dumb man, nor a blind man. What
'a was I don't say."
"Is he known in these parts?" said Olly Dowden.
"Hardly," said Timothy; "but I name no name....Come, keep the fire up
there, youngsters."
"Whatever is Christian Cantle's teeth a-chattering for?" said a boy from
amid the smoke and shades on the other side of the blaze. "Be ye a-cold,
Christian?"
A thin jibbering voice was heard to reply, "No, not at all."
"Come forward, Christian, and show yourself. I didn't know you were
here," said Fairway, with a humane look across towards that quarter.
Thus requested, a faltering man, with reedy hair, no shoulders, and a
great quantity of wrist and ankle beyond his clothes, advanced a step or
two by his own will, and was pushed by the will of others half a dozen
steps more. He was Grandfer Cantle's youngest son.
"What be ye quaking for, Christian?" said the turf-cutter kindly.
"I'm the man."
"What man?"
"The man no woman will marry."
"The deuce you be!" said Timothy Fairway, enlarging his gaze to cover
Christian's whole surface and a great deal more, Grandfer Cantle
meanwhile staring as a hen stares at the duck she has hatched.
"Yes, I be he; and it makes me afeard," said Christian. "D'ye think
'twill hurt me? I shall always say I don't care, and swear to it, though
I do care all the while."
"Well, be damned if this isn't the queerest start ever I know'd," said
Mr. Fairway. "I didn't mean you at all. There's another in the country,
then! Why did ye reveal yer misfortune, Christian?"
"'Twas to be if 'twas, I suppose. I can't help it, can I?" He turned
upon them his painfully circular eyes, surrounded by concentric lines
like targets.
"No, that's true. But 'tis a melancholy thing, and my blood ran cold
when you spoke, for I felt there were two poor fellows where I had
thought only one. 'Tis a sad thing for ye, Christian. How'st know the
women won't hae thee?"
"I've asked 'em."
"Sure I should never have thought you had the face. Well, and what did
the last one say to ye? Nothing that can't be got over, perhaps, after
all?"
"'Get out of my sight, you slack-twisted, slim-looking maphrotight
fool,' was the woman's words to me."
"Not encouraging, I own," said Fairway. "'Get out of my sight, you
slack-twisted, slim-looking maphrotight fool,' is rather a hard way of
saying No. But even that might be overcome by time and patience, so as
to let a few grey hairs show themselves in the hussy's head. How old be
you, Christian?"
"Thirty-one last tatie-digging, Mister Fairway."
"Not a boy—not a boy. Still there's hope yet."
"That's my age by baptism, because that's put down in the great book of
the Judgment that they keep in church vestry; but Mother told me I was
born some time afore I was christened."
"Ah!"
"But she couldn't tell when, to save her life, except that there was no
moon."
"No moon—that's bad. Hey, neighbours, that's bad for him!"
"Yes, 'tis bad," said Grandfer Cantle, shaking his head.
"Mother know'd 'twas no moon, for she asked another woman that had
an almanac, as she did whenever a boy was born to her, because of the
saying, 'No moon, no man,' which made her afeard every man-child she
had. Do ye really think it serious, Mister Fairway, that there was no
moon?"
"Yes. 'No moon, no man.' 'Tis one of the truest sayings ever spit out.
The boy never comes to anything that's born at new moon. A bad job for
thee, Christian, that you should have showed your nose then of all days
in the month."
"I suppose the moon was terrible full when you were born?" said
Christian, with a look of hopeless admiration at Fairway.
"Well, 'a was not new," Mr. Fairway replied, with a disinterested gaze.
"I'd sooner go without drink at Lammas-tide than be a man of no moon,"
continued Christian, in the same shattered recitative. "'Tis said I be
only the rames of a man, and no good for my race at all; and I suppose
that's the cause o't."
"Ay," said Grandfer Cantle, somewhat subdued in spirit; "and yet his
mother cried for scores of hours when 'a was a boy, for fear he should
outgrow hisself and go for a soldier."
"Well, there's many just as bad as he." said Fairway.
"Wethers must live their time as well as other sheep, poor soul."
"So perhaps I shall rub on? Ought I to be afeared o' nights, Master
Fairway?"
"You'll have to lie alone all your life; and 'tis not to married couples
but to single sleepers that a ghost shows himself when 'a do come. One
has been seen lately, too. A very strange one."
"No—don't talk about it if 'tis agreeable of ye not to! 'Twill make my
skin crawl when I think of it in bed alone. But you will—ah, you will,
I know, Timothy; and I shall dream all night o't! A very strange one?
What sort of a spirit did ye mean when ye said, a very strange one,
Timothy?—no, no—don't tell me."
"I don't half believe in spirits myself. But I think it ghostly
enough—what I was told. 'Twas a little boy that zid it."
"What was it like?—no, don't—"
"A red one. Yes, most ghosts be white; but this is as if it had been
dipped in blood."
Christian drew a deep breath without letting it expand his body, and
Humphrey said, "Where has it been seen?"
"Not exactly here; but in this same heth. But 'tisn't a thing to talk
about. What do ye say," continued Fairway in brisker tones, and turning
upon them as if the idea had not been Grandfer Cantle's—"what do you
say to giving the new man and wife a bit of a song tonight afore we go
to bed—being their wedding-day? When folks are just married 'tis as
well to look glad o't, since looking sorry won't unjoin 'em. I am no
drinker, as we know, but when the womenfolk and youngsters have gone
home we can drop down across to the Quiet Woman, and strike up a ballet
in front of the married folks' door. 'Twill please the young wife, and
that's what I should like to do, for many's the skinful I've had at her
hands when she lived with her aunt at Blooms-End."
"Hey? And so we will!" said Grandfer Cantle, turning so briskly that his
copper seals swung extravagantly. "I'm as dry as a kex with biding up
here in the wind, and I haven't seen the colour of drink since
nammet-time today. 'Tis said that the last brew at the Woman is very
pretty drinking. And, neighbours, if we should be a little late in the
finishing, why, tomorrow's Sunday, and we can sleep it off?"
"Grandfer Cantle! you take things very careless for an old man," said
the wide woman.
"I take things careless; I do—too careless to please the women! Klk!
I'll sing the 'Jovial Crew,' or any other song, when a weak old man
would cry his eyes out. Jown it; I am up for anything.
"The king' look'd o'-ver his left' shoul-der', And a grim' look look'-ed hee',
Earl Mar'-shal, he said', but for' my oath' Or hang'-ed thou' shouldst bee'."
"Well, that's what we'll do," said Fairway. "We'll give 'em a song, an'
it please the Lord. What's the good of Thomasin's cousin Clym a-coming
home after the deed's done? He should have come afore, if so be he
wanted to stop it, and marry her himself."
"Perhaps he's coming to bide with his mother a little time, as she must
feel lonely now the maid's gone."
"Now, 'tis very odd, but I never feel lonely—no, not at all," said
Grandfer Cantle. "I am as brave in the nighttime as a' admiral!"
The bonfire was by this time beginning to sink low, for the fuel had not
been of that substantial sort which can support a blaze long. Most
of the other fires within the wide horizon were also dwindling weak.
Attentive observation of their brightness, colour, and length of
existence would have revealed the quality of the material burnt, and
through that, to some extent the natural produce of the district in
which each bonfire was situate. The clear, kingly effulgence that had
characterized the majority expressed a heath and furze country like
their own, which in one direction extended an unlimited number of miles;
the rapid flares and extinctions at other points of the compass showed
the lightest of fuel—straw, beanstalks, and the usual waste from
arable land. The most enduring of all—steady unaltering eyes like
Planets—signified wood, such as hazel-branches, thorn-faggots, and
stout billets. Fires of the last-mentioned materials were rare, and
though comparatively small in magnitude beside the transient blazes, now
began to get the best of them by mere long continuance. The great ones
had perished, but these remained. They occupied the remotest visible
positions—sky-backed summits rising out of rich coppice and plantation
districts to the north, where the soil was different, and heath foreign
and strange.
Save one; and this was the nearest of any, the moon of the whole shining
throng. It lay in a direction precisely opposite to that of the little
window in the vale below. Its nearness was such that, notwithstanding
its actual smallness, its glow infinitely transcended theirs.
This quiet eye had attracted attention from time to time; and when their
own fire had become sunken and dim it attracted more; some even of
the wood fires more recently lighted had reached their decline, but no
change was perceptible here.
"To be sure, how near that fire is!" said Fairway. "Seemingly. I can see
a fellow of some sort walking round it. Little and good must be said of
that fire, surely."
"I can throw a stone there," said the boy.
"And so can I!" said Grandfer Cantle.
"No, no, you can't, my sonnies. That fire is not much less than a mile
off, for all that 'a seems so near."
"'Tis in the heath, but no furze," said the turf-cutter.
"'Tis cleft-wood, that's what 'tis," said Timothy Fairway. "Nothing
would burn like that except clean timber. And 'tis on the knap afore the
old captain's house at Mistover. Such a queer mortal as that man is! To
have a little fire inside your own bank and ditch, that nobody else may
enjoy it or come anigh it! And what a zany an old chap must be, to light
a bonfire when there's no youngsters to please."
"Cap'n Vye has been for a long walk today, and is quite tired out," said
Grandfer Cantle, "so 'tisn't likely to be he."
"And he would hardly afford good fuel like that," said the wide woman.
"Then it must be his granddaughter," said Fairway. "Not that a body of
her age can want a fire much."
"She is very strange in her ways, living up there by herself, and such
things please her," said Susan.
"She's a well-favoured maid enough," said Humphrey the furze-cutter,
"especially when she's got one of her dandy gowns on."
"That's true," said Fairway. "Well, let her bonfire burn an't will. Ours
is well-nigh out by the look o't."
"How dark 'tis now the fire's gone down!" said Christian Cantle,
looking behind him with his hare eyes. "Don't ye think we'd better get
home-along, neighbours? The heth isn't haunted, I know; but we'd better
get home....Ah, what was that?"
"Only the wind," said the turf-cutter.
"I don't think Fifth-of-Novembers ought to be kept up by night except in
towns. It should be by day in outstep, ill-accounted places like this!"
"Nonsense, Christian. Lift up your spirits like a man! Susy, dear, you
and I will have a jig—hey, my honey?—before 'tis quite too dark to see
how well-favoured you be still, though so many summers have passed since
your husband, a son of a witch, snapped you up from me."
This was addressed to Susan Nunsuch; and the next circumstance of which
the beholders were conscious was a vision of the matron's broad form
whisking off towards the space whereon the fire had been kindled. She
was lifted bodily by Mr. Fairway's arm, which had been flung round her
waist before she had become aware of his intention. The site of the fire
was now merely a circle of ashes flecked with red embers and sparks, the
furze having burnt completely away. Once within the circle he whirled
her round and round in a dance. She was a woman noisily constructed;
in addition to her enclosing framework of whalebone and lath, she wore
pattens summer and winter, in wet weather and in dry, to preserve her
boots from wear; and when Fairway began to jump about with her, the
clicking of the pattens, the creaking of the stays, and her screams of
surprise, formed a very audible concert.
"I'll crack thy numskull for thee, you mandy chap!" said Mrs. Nunsuch,
as she helplessly danced round with him, her feet playing like
drumsticks among the sparks. "My ankles were all in a fever before, from
walking through that prickly furze, and now you must make 'em worse with
these vlankers!"
The vagary of Timothy Fairway was infectious. The turf-cutter seized old
Olly Dowden, and, somewhat more gently, poussetted with her likewise.
The young men were not slow to imitate the example of their elders, and
seized the maids; Grandfer Cantle and his stick jigged in the form of a
three-legged object among the rest; and in half a minute all that could
be seen on Rainbarrow was a whirling of dark shapes amid a boiling
confusion of sparks, which leapt around the dancers as high as their
waists. The chief noises were women's shrill cries, men's laughter,
Susan's stays and pattens, Olly Dowden's "heu-heu-heu!" and the
strumming of the wind upon the furze-bushes, which formed a kind of tune
to the demoniac measure they trod. Christian alone stood aloof, uneasily
rocking himself as he murmured, "They ought not to do it—how the
vlankers do fly! 'tis tempting the Wicked one, 'tis."
"What was that?" said one of the lads, stopping.
"Ah—where?" said Christian, hastily closing up to the rest.
The dancers all lessened their speed.
"'Twas behind you, Christian, that I heard it—down here."
"Yes—'tis behind me!" Christian said. "Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John,
bless the bed that I lie on; four angels guard—"
"Hold your tongue. What is it?" said Fairway.
"Hoi-i-i-i!" cried a voice from the darkness.
"Halloo-o-o-o!" said Fairway.
"Is there any cart track up across here to Mis'ess Yeobright's, of
Blooms-End?" came to them in the same voice, as a long, slim indistinct
figure approached the barrow.
"Ought we not to run home as hard as we can, neighbours, as 'tis getting
late?" said Christian. "Not run away from one another, you know; run
close together, I mean." "Scrape up a few stray locks of furze, and make
a blaze, so that we can see who the man is," said Fairway.
When the flame arose it revealed a young man in tight raiment, and red
from top to toe. "Is there a track across here to Mis'ess Yeobright's
house?" he repeated.
"Ay—keep along the path down there."
"I mean a way two horses and a van can travel over?"
"Well, yes; you can get up the vale below here with time. The track is
rough, but if you've got a light your horses may pick along wi' care.
Have ye brought your cart far up, neighbour reddleman?"
"I've left it in the bottom, about half a mile back, I stepped on in
front to make sure of the way, as 'tis night-time, and I han't been here
for so long."
"Oh, well you can get up," said Fairway. "What a turn it did give me
when I saw him!" he added to the whole group, the reddleman included.
"Lord's sake, I thought, whatever fiery mommet is this come to trouble
us? No slight to your looks, reddleman, for ye bain't bad-looking in the
groundwork, though the finish is queer. My meaning is just to say how
curious I felt. I half thought it 'twas the devil or the red ghost the
boy told of."
"It gied me a turn likewise," said Susan Nunsuch, "for I had a dream
last night of a death's head."
"Don't ye talk o't no more," said Christian. "If he had a handkerchief
over his head he'd look for all the world like the Devil in the picture
of the Temptation."
"Well, thank you for telling me," said the young reddleman, smiling
faintly. "And good night t'ye all."
He withdrew from their sight down the barrow.
"I fancy I've seen that young man's face before," said Humphrey. "But
where, or how, or what his name is, I don't know."
The reddleman had not been gone more than a few minutes when another
person approached the partially revived bonfire. It proved to be a
well-known and respected widow of the neighbourhood, of a standing which
can only be expressed by the word genteel. Her face, encompassed by
the blackness of the receding heath, showed whitely, and with-out
half-lights, like a cameo.
She was a woman of middle-age, with well-formed features of the type
usually found where perspicacity is the chief quality enthroned within.
At moments she seemed to be regarding issues from a Nebo denied to
others around. She had something of an estranged mien; the solitude
exhaled from the heath was concentrated in this face that had risen from
it. The air with which she looked at the heathmen betokened a certain
unconcern at their presence, or at what might be their opinions of
her for walking in that lonely spot at such an hour, thus indirectly
implying that in some respect or other they were not up to her level.
The explanation lay in the fact that though her husband had been a small
farmer she herself was a curate's daughter, who had once dreamt of doing
better things.
Persons with any weight of character carry, like planets, their
atmospheres along with them in their orbits; and the matron who entered
now upon the scene could, and usually did, bring her own tone into a
company. Her normal manner among the heathfolk had that reticence which
results from the consciousness of superior communicative power. But
the effect of coming into society and light after lonely wandering in
darkness is a sociability in the comer above its usual pitch, expressed
in the features even more than in words.
"Why, 'tis Mis'ess Yeobright," said Fairway. "Mis'ess Yeobright, not ten
minutes ago a man was here asking for you—a reddleman."
"What did he want?" said she.
"He didn't tell us."
"Something to sell, I suppose; what it can be I am at a loss to
understand."
"I am glad to hear that your son Mr. Clym is coming home at Christmas,
ma'am," said Sam, the turf-cutter. "What a dog he used to be for
bonfires!"
"Yes. I believe he is coming," she said.
"He must be a fine fellow by this time," said Fairway.
"He is a man now," she replied quietly.
"'Tis very lonesome for 'ee in the heth tonight, mis'ess," said
Christian, coming from the seclusion he had hitherto maintained. "Mind
you don't get lost. Egdon Heth is a bad place to get lost in, and the
winds do huffle queerer tonight than ever I heard 'em afore. Them that
know Egdon best have been pixy-led here at times."
"Is that you, Christian?" said Mrs. Yeobright. "What made you hide away
from me?"
"'Twas that I didn't know you in this light, mis'ess; and being a man of
the mournfullest make, I was scared a little, that's all. Oftentimes if
you could see how terrible down I get in my mind, 'twould make 'ee quite
nervous for fear I should die by my hand."
"You don't take after your father," said Mrs. Yeobright, looking towards
the fire, where Grandfer Cantle, with some want of originality, was
dancing by himself among the sparks, as the others had done before.
"Now, Grandfer," said Timothy Fairway, "we are ashamed of ye. A reverent
old patriarch man as you be—seventy if a day—to go hornpiping like
that by yourself!"
"A harrowing old man, Mis'ess Yeobright," said Christian despondingly.
"I wouldn't live with him a week, so playward as he is, if I could get
away."
"'Twould be more seemly in ye to stand still and welcome Mis'ess
Yeobright, and you the venerablest here, Grandfer Cantle," said the
besom-woman.
"Faith, and so it would," said the reveller checking himself
repentantly. "I've such a bad memory, Mis'ess Yeobright, that I forget
how I'm looked up to by the rest of 'em. My spirits must be wonderful
good, you'll say? But not always. 'Tis a weight upon a man to be looked
up to as commander, and I often feel it."
"I am sorry to stop the talk," said Mrs. Yeobright. "But I must be
leaving you now. I was passing down the Anglebury Road, towards my
niece's new home, who is returning tonight with her husband; and seeing
the bonfire and hearing Olly's voice among the rest I came up here to
learn what was going on. I should like her to walk with me, as her way
is mine."
"Ay, sure, ma'am, I'm just thinking of moving," said Olly.
"Why, you'll be safe to meet the reddleman that I told ye of," said
Fairway. "He's only gone back to get his van. We heard that your niece
and her husband were coming straight home as soon as they were married,
and we are going down there shortly, to give 'em a song o' welcome."
"Thank you indeed," said Mrs. Yeobright.
"But we shall take a shorter cut through the furze than you can go with
long clothes; so we won't trouble you to wait."
"Very well—are you ready, Olly?"
"Yes, ma'am. And there's a light shining from your niece's window, see.
It will help to keep us in the path."
She indicated the faint light at the bottom of the valley which Fairway
had pointed out; and the two women descended the tumulus.
4—The Halt on the Turnpike Road
Down, downward they went, and yet further down—their descent at each
step seeming to outmeasure their advance. Their skirts were scratched
noisily by the furze, their shoulders brushed by the ferns, which,
though dead and dry, stood erect as when alive, no sufficient winter
weather having as yet arrived to beat them down. Their Tartarean
situation might by some have been called an imprudent one for two
unattended women. But these shaggy recesses were at all seasons a
familiar surrounding to Olly and Mrs. Yeobright; and the addition of
darkness lends no frightfulness to the face of a friend.
"And so Tamsin has married him at last," said Olly, when the incline
had become so much less steep that their foot-steps no longer required
undivided attention.
Mrs. Yeobright answered slowly, "Yes; at last."
"How you will miss her—living with 'ee as a daughter, as she always
have."
"I do miss her."
Olly, though without the tact to perceive when remarks were untimely,
was saved by her very simplicity from rendering them offensive.
Questions that would have been resented in others she could ask with
impunity. This accounted for Mrs. Yeobright's acquiescence in the
revival of an evidently sore subject.
"I was quite strook to hear you'd agreed to it, ma'am, that I was,"
continued the besom-maker.
"You were not more struck by it than I should have been last year this
time, Olly. There are a good many sides to that wedding. I could not
tell you all of them, even if I tried."
"I felt myself that he was hardly solid-going enough to mate with your
family. Keeping an inn—what is it? But 'a's clever, that's true, and
they say he was an engineering gentleman once, but has come down by
being too outwardly given."
"I saw that, upon the whole, it would be better she should marry where
she wished."
"Poor little thing, her feelings got the better of her, no doubt. 'Tis
nature. Well, they may call him what they will—he've several acres
of heth-ground broke up here, besides the public house, and the
heth-croppers, and his manners be quite like a gentleman's. And what's
done cannot be undone."
"It cannot," said Mrs. Yeobright. "See, here's the wagon-track at last.
Now we shall get along better."
The wedding subject was no further dwelt upon; and soon a faint
diverging path was reached, where they parted company, Olly first
begging her companion to remind Mr. Wildeve that he had not sent
her sick husband the bottle of wine promised on the occasion of his
marriage. The besom-maker turned to the left towards her own house,
behind a spur of the hill, and Mrs. Yeobright followed the straight
track, which further on joined the highway by the Quiet Woman Inn,
whither she supposed her niece to have returned with Wildeve from their
wedding at Anglebury that day.
She first reached Wildeve's Patch, as it was called, a plot of land
redeemed from the heath, and after long and laborious years brought into
cultivation. The man who had discovered that it could be tilled died of
the labour; the man who succeeded him in possession ruined himself in
fertilizing it. Wildeve came like Amerigo Vespucci, and received the
honours due to those who had gone before.
When Mrs. Yeobright had drawn near to the inn, and was about to enter,
she saw a horse and vehicle some two hundred yards beyond it, coming
towards her, a man walking alongside with a lantern in his hand. It
was soon evident that this was the reddleman who had inquired for her.
Instead of entering the inn at once, she walked by it and towards the
van.
The conveyance came close, and the man was about to pass her with
little notice, when she turned to him and said, "I think you have been
inquiring for me? I am Mrs. Yeobright of Blooms-End."
The reddleman started, and held up his finger. He stopped the horses,
and beckoned to her to withdraw with him a few yards aside, which she
did, wondering.
"You don't know me, ma'am, I suppose?" he said.
"I do not," said she. "Why, yes, I do! You are young Venn—your father
was a dairyman somewhere here?"
"Yes; and I knew your niece, Miss Tamsin, a little. I have something bad
to tell you."
"About her—no! She has just come home, I believe, with her husband.
They arranged to return this afternoon—to the inn beyond here."
"She's not there."
"How do you know?"
"Because she's here. She's in my van," he added slowly.
"What new trouble has come?" murmured Mrs. Yeobright, putting her hand
over her eyes.
"I can't explain much, ma'am. All I know is that, as I was going along
the road this morning, about a mile out of Anglebury, I heard something
trotting after me like a doe, and looking round there she was, white as
death itself. 'Oh, Diggory Venn!' she said, 'I thought 'twas you—will
you help me? I am in trouble.'"
"How did she know your Christian name?" said Mrs. Yeobright doubtingly.
"I had met her as a lad before I went away in this trade. She asked then
if she might ride, and then down she fell in a faint. I picked her up
and put her in, and there she has been ever since. She has cried a good
deal, but she has hardly spoke; all she has told me being that she was
to have been married this morning. I tried to get her to eat something,
but she couldn't; and at last she fell asleep."
"Let me see her at once," said Mrs. Yeobright, hastening towards the
van.
The reddleman followed with the lantern, and, stepping up first,
assisted Mrs. Yeobright to mount beside him. On the door being opened
she perceived at the end of the van an extemporized couch, around which
was hung apparently all the drapery that the reddleman possessed,
to keep the occupant of the little couch from contact with the red
materials of his trade. A young girl lay thereon, covered with a cloak.
She was asleep, and the light of the lantern fell upon her features.
A fair, sweet, and honest country face was revealed, reposing in a nest
of wavy chestnut hair. It was between pretty and beautiful. Though her
eyes were closed, one could easily imagine the light necessarily shining
in them as the culmination of the luminous workmanship around. The
groundwork of the face was hopefulness; but over it now I ay like a
foreign substance a film of anxiety and grief. The grief had been there
so shortly as to have abstracted nothing of the bloom, and had as yet
but given a dignity to what it might eventually undermine. The scarlet
of her lips had not had time to abate, and just now it appeared still
more intense by the absence of the neighbouring and more transient
colour of her cheek. The lips frequently parted, with a murmur of words.
She seemed to belong rightly to a madrigal—to require viewing through
rhyme and harmony.
One thing at least was obvious: she was not made to be looked at
thus. The reddleman had appeared conscious of as much, and, while Mrs.
Yeobright looked in upon her, he cast his eyes aside with a delicacy
which well became him. The sleeper apparently thought so too, for the
next moment she opened her own.
The lips then parted with something of anticipation, something more of
doubt; and her several thoughts and fractions of thoughts, as signalled
by the changes on her face, were exhibited by the light to the utmost
nicety. An ingenuous, transparent life was disclosed, as if the flow of
her existence could be seen passing within her. She understood the scene
in a moment.
"O yes, it is I, Aunt," she cried. "I know how frightened you are, and
how you cannot believe it; but all the same, it is I who have come home
like this!"
"Tamsin, Tamsin!" said Mrs. Yeobright, stooping over the young woman and
kissing her. "O my dear girl!"
Thomasin was now on the verge of a sob, but by an unexpected
self-command she uttered no sound. With a gentle panting breath she sat
upright.
"I did not expect to see you in this state, any more than you me," she
went on quickly. "Where am I, Aunt?"
"Nearly home, my dear. In Egdon Bottom. What dreadful thing is it?"
"I'll tell you in a moment. So near, are we? Then I will get out and
walk. I want to go home by the path."
"But this kind man who has done so much will, I am sure, take you
right on to my house?" said the aunt, turning to the reddleman, who had
withdrawn from the front of the van on the awakening of the girl, and
stood in the road.
"Why should you think it necessary to ask me? I will, of course," said
he.
"He is indeed kind," murmured Thomasin. "I was once acquainted with him,
Aunt, and when I saw him today I thought I should prefer his van to any
conveyance of a stranger. But I'll walk now. Reddleman, stop the horses,
please."
The man regarded her with tender reluctance, but stopped them
Aunt and niece then descended from the van, Mrs. Yeobright saying to its
owner, "I quite recognize you now. What made you change from the nice
business your father left you?"
"Well, I did," he said, and looked at Thomasin, who blushed a little.
"Then you'll not be wanting me any more tonight, ma'am?"
Mrs. Yeobright glanced around at the dark sky, at the hills, at the
perishing bonfires, and at the lighted window of the inn they had
neared. "I think not," she said, "since Thomasin wishes to walk. We can
soon run up the path and reach home—we know it well."
And after a few further words they parted, the reddleman moving onwards
with his van, and the two women remaining standing in the road. As soon
as the vehicle and its driver had withdrawn so far as to be beyond all
possible reach of her voice, Mrs. Yeobright turned to her niece.
"Now, Thomasin," she said sternly, "what's the meaning of this
disgraceful performance?"
So ends Chapter 4 "The Halt on the Turnpike Road"