The Mayor of Casterbridge, by Thomas Hardy

Chapter 12.

On entering his own door after watching his wife out of sight, the Mayor walked on through the tunnel-shaped passage into the garden, and thence by the back door towards the stores and granaries. A light shone from the office-window, and there being no blind to screen the interior Henchard could see Donald Farfrae still seated where he had left him, initiating himself into the managerial work of the house by overhauling the books. Henchard entered, merely observing, “Don’t let me interrupt you, if ye will stay so late.”

He stood behind Farfrae’s chair, watching his dexterity in clearing up the numerical fogs which had been allowed to grow so thick in Henchard’s books as almost to baffle even the Scotchman’s perspicacity. The corn-factor’s mien was half admiring, and yet it was not without a dash of pity for the tastes of any one who could care to give his mind to such finnikin details. Henchard himself was mentally and physically unfit for grubbing subtleties from soiled paper; he had in a modern sense received the education of Achilles, and found penmanship a tantalizing art.

“You shall do no more to-night,” he said at length, spreading his great hand over the paper. “There’s time enough to-morrow. Come indoors with me and have some supper. Now you shall! I am determined on’t.” He shut the account-books with friendly force.

Donald had wished to get to his lodgings; but he already saw that his friend and employer was a man who knew no moderation in his requests and impulses, and he yielded gracefully. He liked Henchard’s warmth, even if it inconvenienced him; the great difference in their characters adding to the liking.

They locked up the office, and the young man followed his companion through the private little door which, admitting directly into Henchard’s garden, permitted a passage from the utilitarian to the beautiful at one step. The garden was silent, dewy, and full of perfume. It extended a long way back from the house, first as lawn and flower-beds, then as fruit-garden, where the long-tied espaliers, as old as the old house itself, had grown so stout, and cramped, and gnarled that they had pulled their stakes out of the ground and stood distorted and writhing in vegetable agony, like leafy Laocoons. The flowers which smelt so sweetly were not discernible; and they passed through them into the house.

The hospitalities of the morning were repeated, and when they were over Henchard said, “Pull your chair round to the fireplace, my dear fellow, and let’s make a blaze — there’s nothing I hate like a black grate, even in September.” He applied a light to the laid-in fuel, and a cheerful radiance spread around.

“It is odd,” said Henchard, “that two men should meet as we have done on a purely business ground, and that at the end of the first day I should wish to speak to ‘ee on a family matter. But, damn it all, I am a lonely man, Farfrae: I have nobody else to speak to; and why shouldn’t I tell it to ‘ee?”

“I’ll be glad to hear it, if I can be of any service,” said Donald, allowing his eyes to travel over the intricate wood-carvings of the chimney-piece, representing garlanded lyres, shields, and quivers, on either side of a draped ox-skull, and flanked by heads of Apollo and Diana in low relief.

“I’ve not been always what I am now,” continued Henchard, his firm deep voice being ever so little shaken. He was plainly under that strange influence which sometimes prompts men to confide to the new-found friend what they will not tell to the old. “I began life as a working hay-trusser, and when I was eighteen I married on the strength o’ my calling. Would you think me a married man?”

“I heard in the town that you were a widower.”

“Ah, yes — you would naturally have heard that. Well, I lost my wife nineteen years ago or so — by my own fault. . . . This is how it came about. One summer evening I was travelling for employment, and she was walking at my side, carying the baby, our only child. We came to a booth in a country fair. I was a drinking man at that time.”

Henchard paused a moment, threw himself back so that his elbow rested on the table, his forehead being shaded by his hand, which, however, did not hide the marks of introspective inflexibility on his features as he narrated in fullest detail the incidents of the transaction with the sailor. The tinge of indifference which had at first been visible in the Scotchman now disappeared.

Henchard went on to describe his attempts to find his wife; the oath he swore; the solitary life he led during the years which followed. “I have kept my oath for nineteen years,” he went on; “I have risen to what you see me now.”

“Ay!”

“Well — no wife could I hear of in all that time; and being by nature something of a woman-hater, I have found it no hardship to keep mostly at a distance from the sex. No wife could I hear of, I say, till this very day. And now — she has come back.”

“Come back, has she!”

“This morning — this very morning. And what’s to be done?”

“Can ye no’ take her and live with her, and make some amends?”

“That’s what I’ve planned and proposed. But, Farfrae,” said Henchard gloomily, “by doing right with Susan I wrong another innocent woman.”

“Ye don’t say that?”

“In the nature of things, Farfrae, it is almost impossible that a man of my sort should have the good fortune to tide through twenty years o’ life without making more blunders than one. It has been my custom for many years to run across to Jersey in the the way of business, particularly in the potato and root season. I do a large trade wi’ them in that line. Well, one autumn when stopping there I fell quite ill, and in my illness I sank into one of those gloomy fits I sometimes suffer from, on account o’ the loneliness of my domestic life, when the world seems to have the blackness of hell, and, like Job, I could curse the day that gave me birth.”

“Ah, now, I never feel like it,” said Farfrae.

“Then pray to God that you never may, young man. While in this state I was taken pity on by a woman — a young lady I should call her, for she was of good family, well bred, and well educated — the daughter of some harum-scarum military officer who had got into difficulties, and had his pay sequestrated. He was dead now, and her mother too, and she was as lonely as I. This young creature was staying at the boarding-house where I happened to have my lodging; and when I was pulled down she took upon herself to nurse me. From that she got to have a foolish liking for me. Heaven knows why, for I wasn’t worth it. But being together in the same house, and her feeling warm, we got naturally intimate. I won’t go into particulars of what our relations were. It is enough to say that we honestly meant to marry. There arose a scandal, which did me no harm, but was of course ruin to her. Though, Farfrae, between you and me, as man and man, I solemnly declare that philandering with womankind has neither been my vice nor my virtue. She was terribly careless of appearances, and I was perhaps more, because o’ my dreary state; and it was through this that the scandal arose. At last I was well, and came away. When I was gone she suffered much on my account, and didn’t forget to tell me so in letters one after another; till latterly, I felt I owed her something, and thought that, as I had not heard of Susan for so long, I would make this other one the only return I could make, and ask her if she would run the risk of Susan being alive (very slight as I believed) and marry me, such as I was. She jumped for joy, and we should no doubt soon have been married — but, behold, Susan appears!”

Donald showed his deep concern at a complication so far beyond the degree of his simple experiences.

“Now see what injury a man may cause around him! Even after that wrong-doing at the fair when I was young, if I had never been so selfish as to let this giddy girl devote herself to me over at Jersey, to the injury of her name, all might now be well. Yet, as it stands, I must bitterly disappoint one of these women; and it is the second. My first duty is to Susan — there’s no doubt about that.”

“They are both in a very melancholy position, and that’s true!” murmured Donald.

“They are! For myself I don’t care —’twill all end one way. But these two.” Henchard paused in reverie. “I feel I should like to treat the second, no less than the first, as kindly as a man can in such a case.”

“Ah, well, it cannet be helped!” said the other, with philosophic woefulness. “You mun write to the young lady, and in your letter you must put it plain and honest that it turns out she cannet be your wife, the first having come back; that ye cannet see her more; and that — ye wish her weel.”

“That won’t do. ‘Od seize it, I must do a little more than that! I must — though she did always brag about her rich uncle or rich aunt, and her expectations from ’em — I must send a useful sum of money to her, I suppose — just as a little recompense, poor girl. . . . Now, will you help me in this, and draw up an explanation to her of all I’ve told ye, breaking it as gently as you can? I’m so bad at letters.”

“And I will.”

“Now, I haven’t told you quite all yet. My wife Susan has my daughter with her — the baby that was in her arms at the fair; and this girl knows nothing of me beyond that I am some sort of relation by marriage. She has grown up in the belief that the sailor to whom I made over her mother, and who is now dead, was her father, and her mother’s husband.

What her mother has always felt, she and I together feel now — that we can’t proclaim our disgrace to the girl by letting her know the truth. Now what would you do? — I want your advice.”

“I think I’d run the risk, and tell her the truth. She’ll forgive ye both.”

“Never!” said Henchard. “I am not going to let her know the truth. Her mother and I be going to marry again; and it will not only help us to keep our child’s respect, but it will be more proper. Susan looks upon herself as the sailor’s widow, and won’t think o’ living with me as formerly without another religious ceremony — and she’s right.”

Farfrae thereupon said no more. The letter to the young Jersey woman was carefully framed by him, and the interview ended, Henchard saying, as the Scotchman left, “I feel it a great relief, Farfrae, to tell some friend o’ this! You see now that the Mayor of Casterbridge is not so thriving in his mind as it seems he might be from the state of his pocket.”

“I do. And I’m sorry for ye!” said Farfrae.

When he was gone Henchard copied the letter, and, enclosing a cheque, took it to the post-office, from which he walked back thoughtfully.

“Can it be that it will go off so easily!” he said. “Poor thing — God knows! Now then, to make amends to Susan!”

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 19:22