The Mayor of Casterbridge, by Thomas Hardy

Chapter 14.

A Martinmas summer of Mrs. Henchard’s life set in with her entry into her husband’s large house and respectable social orbit; and it was as bright as such summers well can be. Lest she should pine for deeper affection than he could give he made a point of showing some semblance of it in external action. Among other things he had the iron railings, that had smiled sadly in dull rust for the last eighty years, painted a bright green, and the heavy-barred, small-paned Georgian sash windows enlivened with three coats of white. He was as kind to her as a man, mayor, and churchwarden could possibly be. The house was large, the rooms lofty, and the landings wide; and the two unassuming women scarcely made a perceptible addition to its contents.

To Elizabeth-Jane the time was a most triumphant one. The freedom she experienced, the indulgence with which she was treated, went beyond her expectations. The reposeful, easy, affluent life to which her mother’s marriage had introduced her was, in truth, the beginning of a great change in Elizabeth. She found she could have nice personal possessions and ornaments for the asking, and, as the mediaeval saying puts it, “Take, have, and keep, are pleasant words.” With peace of mind came development, and with development beauty. Knowledge — the result of great natural insight — she did not lack; learning, accomplishment — those, alas, she had not; but as the winter and spring passed by her thin face and figure filled out in rounder and softer curves; the lines and contractions upon her young brow went away; the muddiness of skin which she had looked upon as her lot by nature departed with a change to abundance of good things, and a bloom came upon her cheek. Perhaps, too, her grey, thoughtful eyes revealed an arch gaiety sometimes; but this was infrequent; the sort of wisdom which looked from their pupils did not readily keep company with these lighter moods. Like all people who have known rough times, light-heartedness seemed to her too irrational and inconsequent to be indulged in except as a reckless dram now and then; for she had been too early habituated to anxious reasoning to drop the habit suddenly. She felt none of those ups and downs of spirit which beset so many people without cause; never — to paraphrase a recent poet — never a gloom in Elizabeth-Jane’s soul but she well knew how it came there; and her present cheerfulness was fairly proportionate to her solid guarantees for the same.

It might have been supposed that, given a girl rapidly becoming good-looking, comfortably circumstanced, and for the first time in her life commanding ready money, she would go and make a fool of herself by dress. But no. The reasonableness of almost everything that Elizabeth did was nowhere more conspicuous than in this question of clothes. To keep in the rear of opportunity in matters of indulgence is as valuable a habit as to keep abreast of opportunity in matters of enterprise. This unsophisticated girl did it by an innate perceptiveness that was almost genius. Thus she refrained from bursting out like a water-flower that spring, and clothing herself in puffings and knick-knacks, as most of the Casterbridge girls would have done in her circumstances. Her triumph was tempered by circumspection, she had still that field-mouse fear of the coulter of destiny despite fair promise, which is common among the thoughtful who have suffered early from poverty and oppression.

“I won’t be too gay on any account,” she would say to herself. “It would be tempting Providence to hurl mother and me down, and afflict us again as He used to do.”

We now see her in a black silk bonnet, velvet mantle or silk spencer, dark dress, and carrying a sunshade. In this latter article she drew the line at fringe, and had it plain edged, with a little ivory ring for keeping it closed. It was odd about the necessity for that sunshade. She discovered that with the clarification of her complexion and the birth of pink cheeks her skin had grown more sensitive to the sun’s rays. She protected those cheeks forthwith, deeming spotlessness part of womanliness.

Henchard had become very fond of her, and she went out with him more frequently than with her mother now. Her appearance one day was so attractive that he looked at her critically.

“I happened to have the ribbon by me, so I made it up,” she faltered, thinking him perhaps dissatisfied with some rather bright trimming she had donned for the first time.

“Ay — of course — to be sure,” he replied in his leonine way. “Do as you like — or rather as your mother advises ye. ‘Od send — I’ve nothing to say to’t!”

Indoors she appeared with her hair divided by a parting that arched like a white rainbow from ear to ear. All in front of this line was covered with a thick encampment of curls; all behind was dressed smoothly, and drawn to a knob.

The three members of the family were sitting at breakfast one day, and Henchard was looking silently, as he often did, at this head of hair, which in colour was brown — rather light than dark. “I thought Elizabeth-Jane’s hair — didn’t you tell me that Elizabeth-Jane’s hair promised to be black when she was a baby?” he said to his wife.

She looked startled, jerked his foot warningly, and murmured, “Did I?”

As soon as Elizabeth was gone to her own room Henchard resumed. “Begad, I nearly forgot myself just now! What I meant was that the girl’s hair certainly looked as if it would be darker, when she was a baby.”

“It did; but they alter so,” replied Susan.

“Their hair gets darker, I know — but I wasn’t aware it lightened ever?”

“O yes.” And the same uneasy expression came out on her face, to which the future held the key. It passed as Henchard went on:

“Well, so much the better. Now Susan, I want to have her called Miss Henchard — not Miss Newson. Lots o’ people do it already in carelessness — it is her legal name — so it may as well be made her usual name — I don’t like t’other name at all for my own flesh and blood. I’ll advertise it in the Casterbridge paper — that’s the way they do it. She won’t object.”

“No. O no. But —”

“Well, then, I shall do it,” he said, peremptorily. “Surely, if she’s willing, you must wish it as much as I?”

“O yes — if she agrees let us do it by all means,” she replied.

Then Mrs. Henchard acted somewhat inconsistently; it might have been called falsely, but that her manner was emotional and full of the earnestness of one who wishes to do right at great hazard. She went to Elizabeth-Jane, whom she found sewing in her own sitting-room upstairs, and told her what had been proposed about her surname. “Can you agree — is it not a slight upon Newson — now he’s dead and gone?”

Elizabeth reflected. “I’ll think of it, mother,” she answered.

When, later in the day, she saw Henchard, she adverted to the matter at once, in a way which showed that the line of feeling started by her mother had been persevered in. “Do you wish this change so very much, sir?” she asked.

“Wish it? Why, my blessed fathers, what an ado you women make about a trifle! I proposed it — that’s all. Now, ‘Lizabeth-Jane, just please yourself. Curse me if I care what you do. Now, you understand, don’t ‘ee go agreeing to it to please me.”

Here the subject dropped, and nothing more was said, and nothing was done, and Elizabeth still passed as Miss Newson, and not by her legal name.

Meanwhile the great corn and hay traffic conducted by Henchard throve under the management of Donald Farfrae as it had never thriven before. It had formerly moved in jolts; now it went on oiled casters. The old crude viva voce system of Henchard, in which everything depended upon his memory, and bargains were made by the tongue alone, was swept away. Letters and ledgers took the place of “I’ll do’t,” and “you shall hae’t”; and, as in all such cases of advance, the rugged picturesqueness of the old method disappeared with its inconveniences.

The position of Elizabeth-Jane’s room — rather high in the house, so that it commanded a view of the hay-stores and granaries across the garden — afforded her opportunity for accurate observation of what went on there. She saw that Donald and Mr. Henchard were inseparables. When walking together Henchard would lay his arm familiarly on his manager’s shoulder, as if Farfrae were a younger brother, bearing so heavily that his slight frame bent under the weight. Occasionally she would hear a perfect cannonade of laughter from Henchard, arising from something Donald had said, the latter looking quite innocent and not laughing at all. In Henchard’s somewhat lonely life he evidently found the young man as desirable for comradeship as he was useful for consultations. Donald’s brightness of intellect maintained in the corn-factor the admiration it had won at the first hour of their meeting. The poor opinion, and but ill-concealed, that he entertained of the slim Farfrae’s physical girth, strength, and dash was more than counterbalanced by the immense respect he had for his brains.

Her quiet eye discerned that Henchard’s tigerish affection for the younger man, his constant liking to have Farfrae near him, now and then resulted in a tendency to domineer, which, however, was checked in a moment when Donald exhibited marks of real offence. One day, looking down on their figures from on high, she heard the latter remark, as they stood in the doorway between the garden and yard, that their habit of walking and driving about together rather neutralized Farfrae’s value as a second pair of eyes, which should be used in places where the principal was not. “‘Od damn it,” cried Henchard, “what’s all the world! I like a fellow to talk to. Now come along and hae some supper, and don’t take too much thought about things, or ye’ll drive me crazy.”

When she walked with her mother, on the other hand, she often beheld the Scotchman looking at them with a curious interest. The fact that he had met her at the Three Mariners was insufficient to account for it, since on the occasions on which she had entered his room he had never raised his eyes. Besides, it was at her mother more particularly than at herself that he looked, to Elizabeth-Jane’s half-conscious, simple-minded, perhaps pardonable, disappointment. Thus she could not account for this interest by her own attractiveness, and she decided that it might be apparent only — a way of turning his eyes that Mr. Farfrae had.

She did not divine the ample explanation of his manner, without personal vanity, that was afforded by the fact of Donald being the depositary of Henchard’s confidence in respect of his past treatment of the pale, chastened mother who walked by her side. Her conjectures on that past never went further than faint ones based on things casually heard and seen — mere guesses that Henchard and her mother might have been lovers in their younger days, who had quarrelled and parted.

Casterbridge, as has been hinted, was a place deposited in the block upon a corn-field. There was no suburb in the modern sense, or transitional intermixture of town and down. It stood, with regard to the wide fertile land adjoining, clean-cut and distinct, like a chess-board on a green tablecloth. The farmer’s boy could sit under his barley-mow and pitch a stone into the office-window of the town-clerk; reapers at work among the sheaves nodded to acquaintances standing on the pavement-corner; the red-robed judge, when he condemned a sheep-stealer, pronounced sentence to the tune of Baa, that floated in at the window from the remainder of the flock browsing hard by; and at executions the waiting crowd stood in a meadow immediately before the drop, out of which the cows had been temporarily driven to give the spectators room.

The corn grown on the upland side of the borough was garnered by farmers who lived in an eastern purlieu called Durnover. Here wheat-ricks overhung the old Roman street, and thrust their eaves against the church tower; green-thatched barns, with doorways as high as the gates of Solomon’s temple, opened directly upon the main thoroughfare. Barns indeed were so numerous as to alternate with every half-dozen houses along the way. Here lived burgesses who daily walked the fallow; shepherds in an intra-mural squeeze. A street of farmers’ homesteads — a street ruled by a mayor and corporation, yet echoing with the thump of the flail, the flutter of the winnowing-fan, and the purr of the milk into the pails — a street which had nothing urban in it whatever — this was the Durnover end of Casterbridge.

Henchard, as was natural, dealt largely with this nursery or bed of small farmers close at hand — and his waggons were often down that way. One day, when arrangements were in progress for getting home corn from one of the aforesaid farms, Elizabeth-Jane received a note by hand, asking her to oblige the writer by coming at once to a granary on Durnover Hill. As this was the granary whose contents Henchard was removing, she thought the request had something to do with his business, and proceeded thither as soon as she had put on her bonnet. The granary was just within the farm-yard, and stood on stone staddles, high enough for persons to walk under. The gates were open, but nobody was within. However, she entered and waited. Presently she saw a figure approaching the gate — that of Donald Farfrae. He looked up at the church clock, and came in. By some unaccountable shyness, some wish not to meet him there alone, she quickly ascended the step-ladder leading to the granary door, and entered it before he had seen her. Farfrae advanced, imagining himself in solitude, and a few drops of rain beginning to fall he moved and stood under the shelter where she had just been standing. Here he leant against one of the staddles, and gave himself up to patience. He, too, was plainly expecting some one; could it be herself? If so, why? In a few minutes he looked at his watch, and then pulled out a note, a duplicate of the one she had herself received.

This situation began to be very awkward, and the longer she waited the more awkward it became. To emerge from a door just above his head and descend the ladder, and show she had been in hiding there, would look so very foolish that she still waited on. A winnowing machine stood close beside her, and to relieve her suspense she gently moved the handle; whereupon a cloud of wheat husks flew out into her face, and covered her clothes and bonnet, and stuck into the fur of her victorine. He must have heard the slight movement for he looked up, and then ascended the steps.

“Ah — it’s Miss Newson,” he said as soon as he could see into the granary. “I didn’t know you were there. I have kept the appointment, and am at your service.”

“O Mr. Farfrae,” she faltered, “so have I. But I didn’t know it was you who wished to see me, otherwise I—”

“I wished to see you? O no — at least, that is, I am afraid there may be a mistake.”

“Didn’t you ask me to come here? Didn’t you write this?” Elizabeth held out her note.

“No. Indeed, at no hand would I have thought of it! And for you — didn’t you ask me? This is not your writing?” And he held up his.

“By no means.”

“And is that really so! Then it’s somebody wanting to see us both. Perhaps we would do well to wait a little longer.”

Acting on this consideration they lingered, Elizabeth-Jane’s face being arranged to an expression of preternatural composure, and the young Scot, at every footstep in the street without, looking from under the granary to see if the passer were about to enter and declare himself their summoner. They watched individual drops of rain creeping down the thatch of the opposite rick — straw after straw — till they reached the bottom; but nobody came, and the granary roof began to drip.

“The person is not likely to be coming,” said Farfrae. “It’s a trick perhaps, and if so, it’s a great pity to waste our time like this, and so much to be done.”

“’Tis a great liberty,” said Elizabeth.

“It’s true, Miss Newson. We’ll hear news of this some day depend on’t, and who it was that did it. I wouldn’t stand for it hindering myself; but you, Miss Newson ——”

“I don’t mind — much,’ she replied.

“Neither do I.”

They lapsed again into silence. “You are anxious to get back to Scotland, I suppose, Mr. Farfrae?” she inquired.

“O no, Miss Newson. Why would I be?”

“I only supposed you might be from the song you sang at the Three Mariners — about Scotland and home, I mean — which you seemed to feel so deep down in your heart; so that we all felt for you.”

“Ay — and I did sing there — I did —— But, Miss Newson”— and Donald’s voice musically undulated between two semi-tones as it always did when he became earnest —“it’s well you feel a song for a few minutes, and your eyes they get quite tearful; but you finish it, and for all you felt you don’t mind it or think of it again for a long while. O no, I don’t want to go back! Yet I’ll sing the song to you wi’ pleasure whenever you like. I could sing it now, and not mind at all?”

“Thank you, indeed. But I fear I must go — rain or no.”

“Ay! Then, Miss Newson, ye had better say nothing about this hoax, and take no heed of it. And if the person should say anything to you, be civil to him or her, as if you did not mind it — so you’ll take the clever person’s laugh away.” In speaking his eyes became fixed upon her dress, still sown with wheat husks. “There’s husks and dust on you. Perhaps you don’t know it?” he said, in tones of extreme delicacy. “And it’s very bad to let rain come upon clothes when there’s chaff on them. It washes in and spoils them. Let me help you — blowing is the best.”

As Elizabeth neither assented nor dissented Donald Farfrae began blowing her back hair, and her side hair, and her neck, and the crown of her bonnet, and the fur of her victorine, Elizabeth saying, “O, thank you,” at every puff. At last she was fairly clean, though Farfrae, having got over his first concern at the situation, seemed in no manner of hurry to be gone.

“Ah — now I’ll go and get ye an umbrella,” he said.

She declined the offer, stepped out and was gone. Farfrae walked slowly after, looking thoughtfully at her diminishing figure, and whistling in undertones, “As I came down through Cannobie.”

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