Adam Bede, by George Eliot

Chapter 9

Hetty’s World

WHILE she adjusted the broad leaves that set off the pale fragrant butter as the primrose is set off by its nest of green I am afraid Hetty was thinking a great deal more of the looks Captain Donnithorne had cast at her than of Adam and his troubles. Bright, admiring glances from a handsome young gentleman with white hands, a gold chain, occasional regimentals, and wealth and grandeur immeasurable — those were the warm rays that set poor Hetty’s heart vibrating and playing its little foolish tunes over and over again. We do not hear that Memnon’s statue gave forth its melody at all under the rushing of the mightiest wind, or in response to any other influence divine or human than certain short-lived sunbeams of morning; and we must learn to accommodate ourselves to the discovery that some of those cunningly fashioned instruments called human souls have only a very limited range of music, and will not vibrate in the least under a touch that fills others with tremulous rapture or quivering agony.

Hetty was quite used to the thought that people liked to look at her. She was not blind to the fact that young Luke Britton of Broxton came to Hayslope Church on a Sunday afternoon on purpose that he might see her; and that he would have made much more decided advances if her uncle Poyser, thinking but lightly of a young man whose father’s land was so foul as old Luke Britton’s, had not forbidden her aunt to encourage him by any civilities. She was aware, too, that Mr. Craig, the gardener at the Chase, was over head and ears in love with her, and had lately made unmistakable avowals in luscious strawberries and hyperbolical peas. She knew still better, that Adam Bede — tall, upright, clever, brave Adam Bede — who carried such authority with all the people round about, and whom her uncle was always delighted to see of an evening, saying that “Adam knew a fine sight more o’ the natur o’ things than those as thought themselves his betters”— she knew that this Adam, who was often rather stern to other people and not much given to run after the lasses, could be made to turn pale or red any day by a word or a look from her. Hetty’s sphere of comparison was not large, but she couldn’t help perceiving that Adam was “something like” a man; always knew what to say about things, could tell her uncle how to prop the hovel, and had mended the churn in no time; knew, with only looking at it, the value of the chestnut-tree that was blown down, and why the damp came in the walls, and what they must do to stop the rats; and wrote a beautiful hand that you could read off, and could do figures in his head — a degree of accomplishment totally unknown among the richest farmers of that countryside. Not at all like that slouching Luke Britton, who, when she once walked with him all the way from Broxton to Hayslope, had only broken silence to remark that the grey goose had begun to lay. And as for Mr. Craig, the gardener, he was a sensible man enough, to be sure, but he was knock-kneed, and had a queer sort of sing-song in his talk; moreover, on the most charitable supposition, he must be far on the way to forty.

Hetty was quite certain her uncle wanted her to encourage Adam, and would be pleased for her to marry him. For those were times when there was no rigid demarcation of rank between the farmer and the respectable artisan, and on the home hearth, as well as in the public house, they might be seen taking their jug of ale together; the farmer having a latent sense of capital, and of weight in parish affairs, which sustained him under his conspicuous inferiority in conversation. Martin Poyser was not a frequenter of public houses, but he liked a friendly chat over his own home- brewed; and though it was pleasant to lay down the law to a stupid neighbour who had no notion how to make the best of his farm, it was also an agreeable variety to learn something from a clever fellow like Adam Bede. Accordingly, for the last three years — ever since he had superintended the building of the new barn — Adam had always been made welcome at the Hall Farm, especially of a winter evening, when the whole family, in patriarchal fashion, master and mistress, children and servants, were assembled in that glorious kitchen, at well-graduated distances from the blazing fire. And for the last two years, at least, Hetty had been in the habit of hearing her uncle say, “Adam Bede may be working for wage now, but he’ll be a master-man some day, as sure as I sit in this chair. Mester Burge is in the right on’t to want him to go partners and marry his daughter, if it’s true what they say; the woman as marries him ’ull have a good take, be’t Lady day or Michaelmas,” a remark which Mrs. Poyser always followed up with her cordial assent. “Ah,” she would say, “it’s all very fine having a ready-made rich man, but mayhappen he’ll be a ready-made fool; and it’s no use filling your pocket full o’ money if you’ve got a hole in the corner. It’ll do you no good to sit in a spring-cart o’ your own, if you’ve got a soft to drive you: he’ll soon turn you over into the ditch. I allays said I’d never marry a man as had got no brains; for where’s the use of a woman having brains of her own if she’s tackled to a geck as everybody’s a- laughing at? She might as well dress herself fine to sit back’ards on a donkey.”

These expressions, though figurative, sufficiently indicated the bent of Mrs. Poyser’s mind with regard to Adam; and though she and her husband might have viewed the subject differently if Hetty had been a daughter of their own, it was clear that they would have welcomed the match with Adam for a penniless niece. For what could Hetty have been but a servant elsewhere, if her uncle had not taken her in and brought her up as a domestic help to her aunt, whose health since the birth of Totty had not been equal to more positive labour than the superintendence of servants and children? But Hetty had never given Adam any steady encouragement. Even in the moments when she was most thoroughly conscious of his superiority to her other admirers, she had never brought herself to think of accepting him. She liked to feel that this strong, skilful, keen-eyed man was in her power, and would have been indignant if he had shown the least sign of slipping from under the yoke of her coquettish tyranny and attaching himself to the gentle Mary Burge, who would have been grateful enough for the most trifling notice from him. “Mary Burge, indeed! Such a sallow-faced girl: if she put on a bit of pink ribbon, she looked as yellow as a crow-flower and her hair was as straight as a hank of cotton.” And always when Adam stayed away for several weeks from the Hall Farm, and otherwise made some show of resistance to his passion as a foolish one, Hetty took care to entice him back into the net by little airs of meekness and timidity, as if she were in trouble at his neglect. But as to marrying Adam, that was a very different affair! There was nothing in the world to tempt her to do that. Her cheeks never grew a shade deeper when his name was mentioned; she felt no thrill when she saw him passing along the causeway by the window, or advancing towards her unexpectedly in the footpath across the meadow; she felt nothing, when his eyes rested on her, but the cold triumph of knowing that he loved her and would not care to look at Mary Burge. He could no more stir in her the emotions that make the sweet intoxication of young love than the mere picture of a sun can stir the spring sap in the subtle fibres of the plant. She saw him as he was — a poor man with old parents to keep, who would not be able, for a long while to come, to give her even such luxuries as she shared in her uncle’s house. And Hetty’s dreams were all of luxuries: to sit in a carpeted parlour, and always wear white stockings; to have some large beautiful ear- rings, such as were all the fashion; to have Nottingham lace round the top of her gown, and something to make her handkerchief smell nice, like Miss Lydia Donnithorne’s when she drew it out at church; and not to be obliged to get up early or be scolded by anybody. She thought, if Adam had been rich and could have given her these things, she loved him well enough to marry him.

But for the last few weeks a new influence had come over Hetty — vague, atmospheric, shaping itself into no self-confessed hopes or prospects, but producing a pleasant narcotic effect, making her tread the ground and go about her work in a sort of dream, unconscious of weight or effort, and showing her all things through a soft, liquid veil, as if she were living not in this solid world of brick and stone, but in a beatified world, such as the sun lights up for us in the waters. Hetty had become aware that Mr. Arthur Donnithorne would take a good deal of trouble for the chance of seeing her; that he always placed himself at church so as to have the fullest view of her both sitting and standing; that he was constantly finding reason for calling at the Hall Farm, and always would contrive to say something for the sake of making her speak to him and look at him. The poor child no more conceived at present the idea that the young squire could ever be her lover than a baker’s pretty daughter in the crowd, whom a young emperor distinguishes by an imperial but admiring smile, conceives that she shall be made empress. But the baker’s daughter goes home and dreams of the handsome young emperor, and perhaps weighs the flour amiss while she is thinking what a heavenly lot it must be to have him for a husband. And so, poor Hetty had got a face and a presence haunting her waking and sleeping dreams; bright, soft glances had penetrated her, and suffused her life with a strange, happy languor. The eyes that shed those glances were really not half so fine as Adam’s, which sometimes looked at her with a sad, beseeching tenderness, but they had found a ready medium in Hetty’s little silly imagination, whereas Adam’s could get no entrance through that atmosphere. For three weeks, at least, her inward life had consisted of little else than living through in memory the looks and words Arthur had directed towards her — of little else than recalling the sensations with which she heard his voice outside the house, and saw him enter, and became conscious that his eyes were fixed on her, and then became conscious that a tall figure, looking down on her with eyes that seemed to touch her, was coming nearer in clothes of beautiful texture with an odour like that of a flower-garden borne on the evening breeze. Foolish thoughts! But all this happened, you must remember, nearly sixty years ago, and Hetty was quite uneducated — a simple farmer’s girl, to whom a gentleman with a white hand was dazzling as an Olympian god. Until today, she had never looked farther into the future than to the next time Captain Donnithorne would come to the Farm, or the next Sunday when she should see him at church; but now she thought, perhaps he would try to meet her when she went to the Chase tomorrow — and if he should speak to her, and walk a little way, when nobody was by! That had never happened yet; and now her imagination, instead of retracing the past, was busy fashioning what would happen to- morrow — whereabout in the Chase she should see him coming towards her, how she should put her new rose-coloured ribbon on, which he had never seen, and what he would say to her to make her return his glance — a glance which she would be living through in her memory, over and over again, all the rest of the day.

In this state of mind, how could Hetty give any feeling to Adam’s troubles, or think much about poor old Thias being drowned? Young souls, in such pleasant delirium as hers are as unsympathetic as butterflies sipping nectar; they are isolated from all appeals by a barrier of dreams — by invisible looks and impalpable arms.

While Hetty’s hands were busy packing up the butter, and her head filled with these pictures of the morrow, Arthur Donnithorne, riding by Mr. Irwine’s side towards the valley of the Willow Brook, had also certain indistinct anticipations, running as an undercurrent in his mind while he was listening to Mr. Irwine’s account of Dinah — indistinct, yet strong enough to make him feel rather conscious when Mr. Irwine suddenly said, “What fascinated you so in Mrs. Poyser’s dairy, Arthur? Have you become an amateur of damp quarries and skimming dishes?”

Arthur knew the rector too well to suppose that a clever invention would be of any use, so he said, with his accustomed frankness, “No, I went to look at the pretty butter-maker Hetty Sorrel. She’s a perfect Hebe; and if I were an artist, I would paint her. It’s amazing what pretty girls one sees among the farmers’ daughters, when the men are such clowns. That common, round, red face one sees sometimes in the men — all cheek and no features, like Martin Poyser’s — comes out in the women of the famuly as the most charming phiz imaginable.”

“Well, I have no objection to your contemplating Hetty in an artistic light, but I must not have you feeding her vanity and filling her little noddle with the notion that she’s a great beauty, attractive to fine gentlemen, or you will spoil her for a poor man’s wife — honest Craig’s, for example, whom I have seen bestowing soft glances on her. The little puss seems already to have airs enough to make a husband as miserable as it’s a law of nature for a quiet man to be when he marries a beauty. Apropos of marrying, I hope our friend Adam will get settled, now the poor old man’s gone. He will only have his mother to keep in future, and I’ve a notion that there’s a kindness between him and that nice modest girl, Mary Burge, from something that fell from old Jonathan one day when I was talking to him. But when I mentioned the subject to Adam he looked uneasy and turned the conversation. I suppose the love-making doesn’t run smooth, or perhaps Adam hangs back till he’s in a better position. He has independence of spirit enough for two men — rather an excess of pride, if anything.”

“That would be a capital match for Adam. He would slip into old Burge’s shoes and make a fine thing of that building business, I’ll answer for him. I should like to see him well settled in this parish; he would be ready then to act as my grand-vizier when I wanted one. We could plan no end of repairs and improvements together. I’ve never seen the girl, though, I think — at least I’ve never looked at her.”

“Look at her next Sunday at church — she sits with her father on the left of the reading-desk. You needn’t look quite so much at Hetty Sorrel then. When I’ve made up my mind that I can’t afford to buy a tempting dog, I take no notice of him, because if he took a strong fancy to me and looked lovingly at me, the struggle between arithmetic and inclination might become unpleasantly severe. I pique myself on my wisdom there, Arthur, and as an old fellow to whom wisdom had become cheap, I bestow it upon you.”

“Thank you. It may stand me in good stead some day though I don’t know that I have any present use for it. Bless me! How the brook has overflowed. Suppose we have a canter, now we’re at the bottom of the hill.”

That is the great advantage of dialogue on horseback; it can be merged any minute into a trot or a canter, and one might have escaped from Socrates himself in the saddle. The two friends were free from the necessity of further conversation till they pulled up in the lane behind Adam’s cottage.

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Last updated Friday, March 14, 2014 at 21:42