The Mayor of Casterbridge, by Thomas Hardy

Chapter 24.

Poor Elizabeth-Jane, little thinking what her malignant star had done to blast the budding attentions she had won from Donald Farfrae, was glad to hear Lucetta’s words about remaining.

For in addition to Lucetta’s house being a home, that raking view of the market-place which it afforded had as much attraction for her as for Lucetta. The carrefour was like the regulation Open Place in spectacular dramas, where the incidents that occur always happen to bear on the lives of the adjoining residents. Farmers, merchants, dairymen, quacks, hawkers, appeared there from week to week, and disappeared as the afternoon wasted away. It was the node of all orbits.

From Saturday to Saturday was as from day to day with the two young women now. In an emotional sense they did not live at all during the intervals. Wherever they might go wandering on other days, on market-day they were sure to be at home. Both stole sly glances out of the window at Farfrae’s shoulders and poll. His face they seldom saw, for, either through shyness, or not to disturb his mercantile mood, he avoided looking towards their quarters.

Thus things went on, till a certain market-morning brought a new sensation. Elizabeth and Lucetta were sitting at breakfast when a parcel containing two dresses arrived for the latter from London. She called Elizabeth from her breakfast, and entering her friend’s bedroom Elizabeth saw the gowns spread out on the bed, one of a deep cherry colour, the other lighter — a glove lying at the end of each sleeve, a bonnet at the top of each neck, and parasols across the gloves, Lucetta standing beside the suggested human figure in an attitude of contemplation.

“I wouldn’t think so hard about it,” said Elizabeth, marking the intensity with which Lucetta was alternating the question whether this or that would suit best.

“But settling upon new clothes is so trying,” said Lucetta. “You are that person” (pointing to one of the arrangements), “or you are THAT totally different person” (pointing to the other), “for the whole of the coming spring and one of the two, you don’t know which, may turn out to be very objectionable.”

It was finally decided by Miss Templeman that she would be the cherry-coloured person at all hazards. The dress was pronounced to be a fit, and Lucetta walked with it into the front room, Elizabeth following her.

The morning was exceptionally bright for the time of year. The sun fell so flat on the houses and pavement opposite Lucetta’s residence that they poured their brightness into her rooms. Suddenly, after a rumbling of wheels, there were added to this steady light a fantastic series of circling irradiations upon the ceiling, and the companions turned to the window. Immediately opposite a vehicle of strange description had come to a standstill, as if it had been placed there for exhibition.

It was the new-fashioned agricultural implement called a horse-drill, till then unknown, in its modern shape, in this part of the country, where the venerable seed-lip was still used for sowing as in the days of the Heptarchy. Its arrival created about as much sensation in the corn-market as a flying machine would create at Charing Cross. The farmers crowded round it, women drew near it, children crept under and into it. The machine was painted in bright hues of green, yellow, and red, and it resembled as a whole a compound of hornet, grasshopper, and shrimp, magnified enormously. Or it might have been likened to an upright musical instrument with the front gone. That was how it struck Lucetta. “Why, it is a sort of agricultural piano,” she said.

“It has something to do with corn,” said Elizabeth.

“I wonder who thought of introducing it here?”

Donald Farfrae was in the minds of both as the innovator, for though not a farmer he was closely leagued with farming operations. And as if in response to their thought he came up at that moment, looked at the machine, walked round it, and handled it as if he knew something about its make. The two watchers had inwardly started at his coming, and Elizabeth left the window, went to the back of the room, and stood as if absorbed in the panelling of the wall. She hardly knew that she had done this till Lucetta, animated by the conjunction of her new attire with the sight of Farfrae, spoke out: “Let us go and look at the instrument, whatever it is.”

Elizabeth-Jane’s bonnet and shawl were pitchforked on in a moment, and they went out. Among all the agriculturists gathered round the only appropriate possessor of the new machine seemed to be Lucetta, because she alone rivalled it in colour.

They examined it curiously; observing the rows of trumpet-shaped tubes one within the other, the little scoops, like revolving salt-spoons, which tossed the seed into the upper ends of the tubes that conducted it to the ground; till somebody said, “Good morning, Elizabeth-Jane.” She looked up, and there was her stepfather.

His greeting had been somewhat dry and thunderous, and Elizabeth-Jane, embarrassed out of her equanimity, stammered at random, “This is the lady I live with, father — Miss Templeman.”

Henchard put his hand to his hat, which he brought down with a great wave till it met his body at the knee. Miss Templeman bowed. “I am happy to become acquainted with you, Mr. Henchard,” she said. “This is a curious machine.”

“Yes,” Henchard replied; and he proceeded to explain it, and still more forcibly to ridicule it.

“Who brought it here?” said Lucetta.

“Oh, don’t ask me, ma’am!” said Henchard. “The thing — why ’tis impossible it should act. ’Twas brought here by one of our machinists on the recommendation of a jumped-up jackanapes of a fellow who thinks ——” His eye caught Elizabeth-Jane’s imploring face, and he stopped, probably thinking that the suit might be progressing.

He turned to go away. Then something seemed to occur which his stepdaughter fancied must really be a hallucination of hers. A murmur apparently came from Henchard’s lips in which she detected the words, “You refused to see me!” reproachfully addressed to Lucetta. She could not believe that they had been uttered by her stepfather; unless, indeed, they might have been spoken to one of the yellow-gaitered farmers near them. Yet Lucetta seemed silent, and then all thought of the incident was dissipated by the humming of a song, which sounded as though from the interior of the machine. Henchard had by this time vanished into the market-house, and both the women glanced towards the corn-drill. They could see behind it the bent back of a man who was pushing his head into the internal works to master their simple secrets. The hummed song went on —

“‘Tw — s on a s — m — r aftern — n,

A wee be — re the s — n w — nt d — n,

When Kitty wi’ a braw n — w g — wn

C— me ow’re the h — lls to Gowrie.”

Elizabeth-Jane had apprehended the singer in a moment, and looked guilty of she did not know what. Lucetta next recognized him, and more mistress of herself said archly, “The ‘Lass of Gowrie’ from inside of a seed-drill — what a phenomenon!”

Satisfied at last with his investigation the young man stood upright, and met their eyes across the summit.

“We are looking at the wonderful new drill,” Miss Templeman said. “But practically it is a stupid thing — is it not?” she added, on the strength of Henchard’s information.

“Stupid? O no!” said Farfrae gravely. “It will revolutionize sowing heerabout! No more sowers flinging their seed about broadcast, so that some falls by the wayside and some among thorns, and all that. Each grain will go straight to its intended place, and nowhere else whatever!”

“Then the romance of the sower is gone for good,” observed Elizabeth-Jane, who felt herself at one with Farfrae in Bible-reading at least. “‘He that observeth the wind shall not sow,’ so the Preacher said; but his words will not be to the point any more. How things change!”

“Ay; ay. . . . It must be so!” Donald admitted, his gaze fixing itself on a blank point far away. “But the machines are already very common in the East and North of England,” he added apologetically.

Lucetta seemed to be outside this train of sentiment, her acquaintance with the Scriptures being somewhat limited. “Is the machine yours?” she asked of Farfrae.

“O no, madam,” said he, becoming embarrassed and deferential at the sound of her voice, though with Elizabeth Jane he was quite at his ease. No, no — I merely recommended that it should be got.”

In the silence which followed Farfrae appeared only conscious of her; to have passed from perception of Elizabeth into a brighter sphere of existence than she appertained to. Lucetta, discerning that he was much mixed that day, partly in his mercantile mood and partly in his romantic one, said gaily to him —

“Well, don’t forsake the machine for us,” and went indoors with her companion.

The latter felt that she had been in the way, though why was unaccountable to her. Lucetta explained the matter somewhat by saying when they were again in the sitting-room —

“I had occasion to speak to Mr. Farfrae the other day, and so I knew him this morning.”

Lucetta was very kind towards Elizabeth that day. Together they saw the market thicken, and in course of time thin away with the slow decline of the sun towards the upper end of town, its rays taking the street endways and enfilading the long thoroughfare from top to bottom. The gigs and vans disappeared one by one till there was not a vehicle in the street. The time of the riding world was over the pedestrian world held sway. Field labourers and their wives and children trooped in from the villages for their weekly shopping, and instead of a rattle of wheels and a tramp of horses ruling the sound as earlier, there was nothing but the shuffle of many feet. All the implements were gone; all the farmers; all the moneyed class. The character of the town’s trading had changed from bulk to multiplicity and pence were handled now as pounds had been handled earlier in the day.

Lucetta and Elizabeth looked out upon this, for though it was night and the street lamps were lighted, they had kept their shutters unclosed. In the faint blink of the fire they spoke more freely.

“Your father was distant with you,” said Lucetta.

“Yes.” And having forgotten the momentary mystery of Henchard’s seeming speech to Lucetta she continued, “It is because he does not think I am respectable. I have tried to be so more than you can imagine, but in vain! My mother’s separation from my father was unfortunate for me. You don’t know what it is to have shadows like that upon your life.”

Lucetta seemed to wince. “I do not — of that kind precisely,” she said, “but you may feel a — sense of disgrace — shame — in other ways.”

“Have you ever had any such feeling?” said the younger innocently.

“O no,” said Lucetta quickly. “I was thinking of — what happens sometimes when women get themselves in strange positions in the eyes of the world from no fault of their own.”

“It must make them very unhappy afterwards.”

“It makes them anxious; for might not other women despise them?”

“Not altogether despise them. Yet not quite like or respect them.”

Lucetta winced again. Her past was by no means secure from investigation, even in Casterbridge. For one thing Henchard had never returned to her the cloud of letters she had written and sent him in her first excitement. Possibly they were destroyed; but she could have wished that they had never been written.

The rencounter with Farfrae and his bearings towards Lucetta had made the reflective Elizabeth more observant of her brilliant and amiable companion. A few days afterwards, when her eyes met Lucetta’s as the latter was going out, she somehow knew that Miss Templeman was nourishing a hope of seeing the attractive Scotchman. The fact was printed large all over Lucetta’s cheeks and eyes to any one who could read her as Elizabeth-Jane was beginning to do. Lucetta passed on and closed the street door.

A seer’s spirit took possession of Elizabeth, impelling her to sit down by the fire and divine events so surely from data already her own that they could be held as witnessed. She followed Lucetta thus mentally — saw her encounter Donald somewhere as if by chance — saw him wear his special look when meeting women, with an added intensity because this one was Lucetta. She depicted his impassioned manner; beheld the indecision of both between their lothness to separate and their desire not to be observed; depicted their shaking of hands; how they probably parted with frigidity in their general contour and movements, only in the smaller features showing the spark of passion, thus invisible to all but themselves. This discerning silent witch had not done thinking of these things when Lucetta came noiselessly behind her and made her start.

It was all true as she had pictured — she could have sworn it. Lucetta had a heightened luminousness in her eye over and above the advanced colour of her cheeks.

“You’ve seen Mr. Farfrae,” said Elizabeth demurely.

“Yes,” said Lucetta. “How did you know?”

She knelt down on the hearth and took her friend’s hands excitedly in her own. But after all she did not say when or how she had seen him or what he had said.

That night she became restless; in the morning she was feverish; and at breakfast-time she told her companion that she had something on her mind — something which concerned a person in whom she was interested much. Elizabeth was earnest to listen and sympathize.

“This person — a lady — once admired a man much — very much,” she said tentatively.

“Ah,” said Elizabeth-Jane.

“They were intimate — rather. He did not think so deeply of her as she did of him. But in an impulsive moment, purely out of reparation, he proposed to make her his wife. She agreed. But there was an unsuspected hitch in the proceedings; though she had been so far compromised with him that she felt she could never belong to another man, as a pure matter of conscience, even if she should wish to. After that they were much apart, heard nothing of each other for a long time, and she felt her life quite closed up for her.”

“Ah — poor girl!”

“She suffered much on account of him; though I should add that he could not altogether be blamed for what had happened. At last the obstacle which separated them was providentially removed; and he came to marry her.”

“How delightful!”

“But in the interval she — my poor friend — had seen a man, she liked better than him. Now comes the point: Could she in honour dismiss the first?”

“A new man she liked better — that’s bad!”

“Yes,” said Lucetta, looking pained at a boy who was swinging the town pump-handle. “It is bad! Though you must remember that she was forced into an equivocal position with the first man by an accident — that he was not so well educated or refined as the second, and that she had discovered some qualities in the first that rendered him less desirable as a husband than she had at first thought him to be.”

“I cannot answer,” said Elizabeth-Jane thoughtfully. “It is so difficult. It wants a Pope to settle that!”

“You prefer not to perhaps?” Lucetta showed in her appealing tone how much she leant on Elizabeth’s judgment.

“Yes, Miss Templeman,” admitted Elizabeth. “I would rather not say.”

Nevertheless, Lucetta seemed relieved by the simple fact of having opened out the situation a little, and was slowly convalescent of her headache. “Bring me a looking-glass. How do I appear to people?” she said languidly.

“Well — a little worn,” answered Elizabeth, eyeing her as a critic eyes a doubtful painting; fetching the glass she enabled Lucetta to survey herself in it, which Lucetta anxiously did.

“I wonder if I wear well, as times go!” she observed after a while.

“Yes — fairly.

“Where am I worst?”

“Under your eyes — I notice a little brownness there.”

“Yes. That is my worst place, I know. How many years more do you think I shall last before I get hopelessly plain?”

There was something curious in the way in which Elizabeth, though the younger, had come to play the part of experienced sage in these discussions. “It may be five years,” she said judicially. “Or, with a quiet life, as many as ten. With no love you might calculate on ten.”

Lucetta seemed to reflect on this as on an unalterable, impartial verdict. She told Elizabeth-Jane no more of the past attachment she had roughly adumbrated as the experiences of a third person; and Elizabeth, who in spite of her philosophy was very tender-hearted, sighed that night in bed at the thought that her pretty, rich Lucetta did not treat her to the full confidence of names and dates in her confessions. For by the “she” of Lucetta’s story Elizabeth had not been beguiled.

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