The Mayor of Casterbridge, by Thomas Hardy

Chapter 17.

Elizabeth-Jane had perceived from Henchard’s manner that in assenting to dance she had made a mistake of some kind. In her simplicity she did not know what it was till a hint from a nodding acquaintance enlightened her. As the Mayor’s step-daughter, she learnt, she had not been quite in her place in treading a measure amid such a mixed throng as filled the dancing pavilion.

Thereupon her ears, cheeks, and chin glowed like live coals at the dawning of the idea that her tastes were not good enough for her position, and would bring her into disgrace.

This made her very miserable, and she looked about for her mother; but Mrs. Henchard, who had less idea of conventionality than Elizabeth herself, had gone away, leaving her daughter to return at her own pleasure. The latter moved on into the dark dense old avenues, or rather vaults of living woodwork, which ran along the town boundary, and stood reflecting.

A man followed in a few minutes, and her face being to-wards the shine from the tent he recognized her. It was Farfrae — just come from the dialogue with Henchard which had signified his dismissal.

“And it’s you, Miss Newson? — and I’ve been looking for ye everywhere!” he said, overcoming a sadness imparted by the estrangement with the corn-merchant. “May I walk on with you as far as your street-corner?”

She thought there might be something wrong in this, but did not utter any objection. So together they went on, first down the West Walk, and then into the Bowling Walk, till Farfrae said, “It’s like that I’m going to leave you soon.”

She faltered, “Why?”

“Oh — as a mere matter of business — nothing more. But we’ll not concern ourselves about it — it is for the best. I hoped to have another dance with you.”

She said she could not dance — in any proper way.

“Nay, but you do! It’s the feeling for it rather than the learning of steps that makes pleasant dancers. . . . I fear I offended your father by getting up this! And now, perhaps, I’ll have to go to another part o’ the warrld altogether!”

This seemed such a melancholy prospect that Elizabeth-Jane breathed a sigh — letting it off in fragments that he might not hear her. But darkness makes people truthful, and the Scotchman went on impulsively — perhaps he had heard her after all:

“I wish I was richer, Miss Newson; and your stepfather had not been offended, I would ask you something in a short time — yes, I would ask you to-night. But that’s not for me!”

What he would have asked her he did not say, and instead of encouraging him she remained incompetently silent. Thus afraid one of another they continued their promenade along the walls till they got near the bottom of the Bowling Walk; twenty steps further and the trees would end, and the street-corner and lamps appear. In consciousness of this they stopped.

“I never found out who it was that sent us to Durnover granary on a fool’s errand that day,” said Donald, in his undulating tones. “Did ye ever know yourself, Miss Newson?”

“Never,” said she.

“I wonder why they did it!”

“For fun, perhaps.”

“Perhaps it was not for fun. It might have been that they thought they would like us to stay waiting there, talking to one another? Ay, well! I hope you Casterbridge folk will not forget me if I go.”

“That I’m sure we won’t!” she said earnestly. “I— wish you wouldn’t go at all.”

They had got into the lamplight. “Now, I’ll think over that,” said Donald Farfrae. “And I’ll not come up to your door; but part from you here; lest it make your father more angry still.”

They parted, Farfrae returning into the dark Bowling Walk, and Elizabeth-Jane going up the street. Without any consciousness of what she was doing she started running with all her might till she reached her father’s door. “O dear me — what am I at?” she thought, as she pulled up breathless.

Indoors she fell to conjecturing the meaning of Farfrae’s enigmatic words about not daring to ask her what he fain would. Elizabeth, that silent observing woman, had long noted how he was rising in favour among the townspeople; and knowing Henchard’s nature now she had feared that Farfrae’s days as manager were numbered, so that the announcement gave her little surprise. Would Mr. Farfrae stay in Casterbridge despite his words and her father’s dismissal? His occult breathings to her might be solvable by his course in that respect.

The next day was windy — so windy that walking in the garden she picked up a portion of the draft of a letter on business in Donald Farfrae’s writing, which had flown over the wall from the office. The useless scrap she took indoors, and began to copy the calligraphy, which she much admired. The letter began “Dear Sir,” and presently writing on a loose slip “Elizabeth-Jane,” she laid the latter over “Sir,” making the phrase “Dear Elizabeth-Jane.” When she saw the effect a quick red ran up her face and warmed her through, though nobody was there to see what she had done. She quickly tore up the slip, and threw it away. After this she grew cool and laughed at herself, walked about the room, and laughed again; not joyfully, but distressfully rather.

It was quickly known in Casterbridge that Farfrae and Henchard had decided to dispense with each other. Elizabeth-Jane’s anxiety to know if Farfrae were going away from the town reached a pitch that disturbed her, for she could no longer conceal from herself the cause. At length the news reached her that he was not going to leave the place. A man following the same trade as Henchard, but on a very small scale, had sold his business to Farfrae, who was forthwith about to start as corn and hay merchant on his own account.

Her heart fluttered when she heard of this step of Donald’s, proving that he meant to remain; and yet, would a man who cared one little bit for her have endangered his suit by setting up a business in opposition to Mr. Henchard’s? Surely not; and it must have been a passing impulse only which had led him to address her so softly.

To solve the problem whether her appearance on the evening of the dance were such as to inspire a fleeting love at first sight, she dressed herself up exactly as she had dressed then — the muslin, the spencer, the sandals, the para-sol — and looked in the mirror The picture glassed back was in her opinion, precisely of such a kind as to inspire that fleeting regard, and no more —“just enough to make him silly, and not enough to keep him so,” she said luminously; and Elizabeth thought, in a much lower key, that by this time he had discovered how plain and homely was the informing spirit of that pretty outside.

Hence, when she felt her heart going out to him, she would say to herself with a mock pleasantry that carried an ache with it, “No, no, Elizabeth-Jane — such dreams are not for you!” She tried to prevent herself from seeing him, and thinking of him; succeeding fairly well in the former attempt, in the latter not so completely.

Henchard, who had been hurt at finding that Farfrae did not mean to put up with his temper any longer, was incensed beyond measure when he learnt what the young man had done as an alternative. It was in the town-hall, after a council meeting, that he first became aware of Farfrae’s coup for establishing himself independently in the town; and his voice might have been heard as far as the town-pump expressing his feelings to his fellow councilmen. These tones showed that, though under a long reign of self-control he had become Mayor and churchwarden and what not, there was still the same unruly volcanic stuff beneath the rind of Michael Henchard as when he had sold his wife at Weydon Fair.

“Well, he’s a friend of mine, and I’m a friend of his — or if we are not, what are we? ‘Od send, if I’ve not been his friend, who has, I should like to know? Didn’t he come here without a sound shoe to his voot? Didn’t I keep him here — help him to a living? Didn’t I help him to money, or whatever he wanted? I stuck out for no terms — I said ‘Name your own price.’ I’d have shared my last crust with that young fellow at one time, I liked him so well. And now he’s defied me! But damn him, I’ll have a tussle with him now — at fair buying and selling, mind — at fair buying and selling! And if I can’t overbid such a stripling as he, then I’m not wo’th a varden! We’ll show that we know our business as well as one here and there!”

His friends of the Corporation did not specially respond. Henchard was less popular now than he had been when nearly two years before, they had voted him to the chief magistracy on account of his amazing energy. While they had collectively profited by this quality of the corn-factor’s they had been made to wince individually on more than one occasion. So he went out of the hall and down the street alone.

Reaching home he seemed to recollect something with a sour satisfaction. He called Elizabeth-Jane. Seeing how he looked when she entered she appeared alarmed.

“Nothing to find fault with,” he said, observing her concern. “Only I want to caution you, my dear. That man, Farfrae — it is about him. I’ve seen him talking to you two or three times — he danced with ‘ee at the rejoicings, and came home with ‘ee. Now, now, no blame to you. But just harken: Have you made him any foolish promise? Gone the least bit beyond sniff and snaff at all?”

“No. I have promised him nothing.”

“Good. All’s well that ends well. I particularly wish you not to see him again.”

“Very well, sir.”

“You promise?”

She hesitated for a moment, and then said —

“Yes, if you much wish it.”

“I do. He’s an enemy to our house!”

When she had gone he sat down, and wrote in a heavy hand to Farfrae thus:—

SIR — I make request that henceforth you and my step-daughter be as strangers to each other. She on her part has promised to welcome no more addresses from you; and I trust, therefore, you will not attempt to force them upon her. M. HENCHARD

One would almost have supposed Henchard to have had policy to see that no better modus vivendi could be arrived at with Farfrae than by encouraging him to become his son-in-law. But such a scheme for buying over a rival had nothing to recommend it to the Mayor’s headstrong faculties. With all domestic finesse of that kind he was hopelessly at variance. Loving a man or hating him, his diplomacy was as wrongheaded as a buffalo’s; and his wife had not ventured to suggest the course which she, for many reasons, would have welcomed gladly.

Meanwhile Donald Farfrae had opened the gates of commerce on his own account at a spot on Durnover Hill — as far as possible from Henchard’s stores, and with every intention of keeping clear of his former friend and employer’s customers. There was, it seemed to the younger man, room for both of them and to spare. The town was small, but the corn and hay-trade was proportionately large, and with his native sagacity he saw opportunity for a share of it.

So determined was he to do nothing which should seem like trade-antagonism to the Mayor that he refused his first customer — a large farmer of good repute — because Henchard and this man had dealt together within the preceding three months.

“He was once my friend,” said Farfrae, “and it’s not for me to take business from him. I am sorry to disappoint you, but I cannot hurt the trade of a man who’s been so kind to me.”

In spite of this praiseworthy course the Scotchman’s trade increased. Whether it were that his northern energy was an overmastering force among the easy-going Wessex worthies, or whether it was sheer luck, the fact remained that whatever he touched he prospered in. Like Jacob in Padan-Aram, he would no sooner humbly limit himself to the ringstraked-and-spotted exceptions of trade than the ringstraked-and-spotted would multiply and prevail.

But most probably luck had little to do with it. Character is Fate, said Novalis, and Farfrae’s character was just the reverse of Henchard’s, who might not inaptly be described as Faust has been described — as a vehement gloomy being who had quitted the ways of vulgar men without light to guide him on a better way.

Farfrae duly received the request to discontinue attentions to Elizabeth-Jane. His acts of that kind had been so slight that the request was almost superfluous. Yet he had felt a considerable interest in her, and after some cogitation he decided that it would be as well to enact no Romeo part just then — for the young girl’s sake no less than his own. Thus the incipient attachment was stifled down.

A time came when, avoid collision with his former friend as he might, Farfrae was compelled, in sheer self-defence, to close with Henchard in mortal commercial combat. He could no longer parry the fierce attacks of the latter by simple avoidance. As soon as their war of prices began everybody was interested, and some few guessed the end. It was, in some degree, Northern insight matched against Southern doggedness — the dirk against the cudgel — and Henchard’s weapon was one which, if it did not deal ruin at the first or second stroke, left him afterwards well-nigh at his antagonist’s mercy.

Almost every Saturday they encountered each other amid the crowd of farmers which thronged about the market-place in the weekly course of their business. Donald was always ready, and even anxious, to say a few friendly words, but the Mayor invariably gazed stormfully past him, like one who had endured and lost on his account, and could in no sense forgive the wrong; nor did Farfrae’s snubbed manner of perplexity at all appease him. The large farmers, corn-merchants, millers, auctioneers, and others had each an official stall in the corn-market room, with their names painted thereon; and when to the familiar series of “Henchard,” “Everdene,” “Shiner,” “Darton,” and so on, was added one inscribed “Farfrae,” in staring new letters, Henchard was stung into bitterness; like Bellerophon, he wandered away from the crowd, cankered in soul.

From that day Donald Farfrae’s name was seldom mentioned in Henchard’s house. If at breakfast or dinner Elizabeth-Jane’s mother inadvertently alluded to her favourite’s movements, the girl would implore her by a look to be silent; and her husband would say, “What — are you, too, my enemy?”

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