The Mayor of Casterbridge, by Thomas Hardy

Chapter 34.

Next morning, accordingly, she rose at five o’clock and went into the street. It was not yet light; a dense fog prevailed, and the town was as silent as it was dark, except that from the rectangular avenues which framed in the borough there came a chorus of tiny rappings, caused by the fall of water-drops condensed on the boughs; now it was wafted from the West Walk, now from the South Walk; and then from both quarters simultaneously. She moved on to the bottom of corn Street, and, knowing his time well, waited only a few minutes before she heard the familiar bang of his door, and then his quick walk towards her. She met him at the point where the last tree of the engirding avenue flanked the last house in the street.

He could hardly discern her till, glancing inquiringly, he said, “What — Miss Henchard — and are ye up so airly?”

She asked him to pardon her for waylaying him at such an unseemly time. “But I am anxious to mention something,” she said. “And I wished not to alarm Mrs. Farfrae by calling.”

“Yes?” said he, with the cheeriness of a superior. “And what may it be? It’s very kind of ye, I’m sure.”

She now felt the difficulty of conveying to his mind the exact aspect of possibilities in her own. But she somehow began, and introduced Henchard’s name. “I sometimes fear,” she said with an effort, “that he may be betrayed into some attempt to — insult you, sir.

“But we are the best of friends?”

“Or to play some practical joke upon you, sir. Remember that he has been hardly used.”

“But we are quite friendly?”

“Or to do something — that would injure you — hurt you — wound you.” Every word cost her twice its length of pain. And she could see that Farfrae was still incredulous. Henchard, a poor man in his employ, was not to Farfrae’s view the Henchard who had ruled him. Yet he was not only the same man, but that man with his sinister qualities, formerly latent, quickened into life by his buffetings.

Farfrae, happy, and thinking no evil, persisted in making light of her fears. Thus they parted, and she went homeward, journeymen now being in the street, waggoners going to the harness-makers for articles left to be repaired, farm-horses going to the shoeing-smiths, and the sons of labour showing themselves generally on the move. Elizabeth entered her lodging unhappily, thinking she had done no good, and only made herself appear foolish by her weak note of warning.

But Donald Farfrae was one of those men upon whom an incident is never absolutely lost. He revised impressions from a subsequent point of view, and the impulsive judgment of the moment was not always his permanent one. The vision of Elizabeth’s earnest face in the rimy dawn came back to him several times during the day. Knowing the solidity of her character he did not treat her hints altogether as idle sounds.

But he did not desist from a kindly scheme on Henchard’s account that engaged him just then; and when he met Lawyer Joyce, the town-clerk, later in the day, he spoke of it as if nothing had occurred to damp it.

“About that little seedsman’s shop,” he said, “the shop overlooking the churchyard, which is to let. It is not for myself I want it, but for our unlucky fellow-townsman Henchard. It would be a new beginning for him, if a small one; and I have told the Council that I would head a private subscription among them to set him up in it — that I would be fifty pounds, if they would make up the other fifty among them.”

“Yes, yes; so I’ve heard; and there’s nothing to say against it for that matter,” the town-clerk replied, in his plain, frank way. “But, Farfrae, others see what you don’t. Henchard hates ‘ee — ay, hates ‘ee; and ’tis right that you should know it. To my knowledge he was at the Three Mariners last night, saying in public that about you which a man ought not to say about another.”

“Is that so — ah, is that so?” said Farfrae, looking down. “Why should he do it?” added the young man bitterly; “what harm have I done him that he should try to wrong me?”

“God only knows,” said Joyce, lifting his eyebrows. “It shows much long-suffering in you to put up with him, and keep him in your employ.”

“But I cannet discharge a man who was once a good friend to me. How can I forget that when I came here ’twas he enabled me to make a footing for mysel’? No, no. As long as I’ve a day’s work to offer he shall do it if he chooses. ’Tis not I who will deny him such a little as that. But I’ll drop the idea of establishing him in a shop till I can think more about it.”

It grieved Farfrae much to give up this scheme. But a damp having been thrown over it by these and other voices in the air, he went and countermanded his orders. The then occupier of the shop was in it when Farfrae spoke to him and feeling it necessary to give some explanation of his withdrawal from the negotiation Donald mentioned Henchard’s name, and stated that the intentions of the Council had been changed.

The occupier was much disappointed, and straight-way informed Henchard, as soon as he saw him, that a scheme of the Council for setting him up in a shop had been knocked on the head by Farfrae. And thus out of error enmity grew.

When Farfrae got indoors that evening the tea-kettle was singing on the high hob of the semi-egg-shaped grate. Lucetta, light as a sylph, ran forward and seized his hands, whereupon Farfrae duly kissed her.

“Oh!” she cried playfully, turning to the window. “See — the blinds are not drawn down, and the people can look in — what a scandal!”

When the candles were lighted, the curtains drawn, and the twain sat at tea, she noticed that he looked serious. Without directly inquiring why she let her eyes linger solicitously on his face.

“Who has called?” he absently asked. “Any folk for me?”

“No,” said Lucetta. “What’s the matter, Donald?”

“Well — nothing worth talking of,” he responded sadly.

“Then, never mind it. You will get through it, Scotchmen are always lucky.”

“No — not always!” he said, shaking his head gloomily as he contemplated a crumb on the table. “I know many who have not been so! There was Sandy Macfarlane, who started to America to try his fortune, and he was drowned; and Archibald Leith, he was murdered! And poor Willie Dunbleeze and Maitland Macfreeze — they fell into bad courses, and went the way of all such!”

“Why — you old goosey — I was only speaking in a general sense, of course! You are always so literal. Now when we have finished tea, sing me that funny song about high-heeled shoon and siller tags, and the one-and-forty wooers.”

“No, no. I couldna sing to-night! It’s Henchard — he hates me; so that I may not be his friend if I would. I would understand why there should be a wee bit of envy; but I cannet see a reason for the whole intensity of what he feels. Now, can you, Lucetta? It is more like old-fashioned rivalry in love than just a bit of rivalry in trade.”

Lucetta had grown somewhat wan. “No,” she replied.

“I give him employment — I cannet refuse it. But neither can I blind myself to the fact that with a man of passions such as his, there is no safeguard for conduct!”

“What have you heard — O Donald, dearest?” said Lucetta in alarm. The words on her lips were “anything about me?”— but she did not utter them. She could not, however, suppress her agitation, and her eyes filled with tears.

“No, no — it is not so serious as ye fancy,” declared Farfrae soothingly; though he did not know its seriousness so well as she.

“I wish you would do what we have talked of,” mournfully remarked Lucetta. “Give up business, and go away from here. We have plenty of money, and why should we stay?”

Farfrae seemed seriously disposed to discuss this move, and they talked thereon till a visitor was announced. Their neighbour Alderman Vatt came in.

“You’ve heard, I suppose of poor Doctor Chalkfield’s death? Yes — died this afternoon at five,” said Mr. Vatt Chalkfield was the Councilman who had succeeded to the Mayoralty in the preceding November.

Farfrae was sorry at the intelligence, and Mr. Vatt continued: “Well, we know he’s been going some days, and as his family is well provided for we must take it all as it is. Now I have called to ask ‘ee this — quite privately. If I should nominate ‘ee to succeed him, and there should be no particular opposition, will ‘ee accept the chair?”

“But there are folk whose turn is before mine; and I’m over young, and may be thought pushing!” said Farfrae after a pause.

“Not at all. I don’t speak for myself only, several have named it. You won’t refuse?”

“We thought of going away,” interposed Lucetta, looking at Farfrae anxiously.

“It was only a fancy,” Farfrae murmured. “I wouldna refuse if it is the wish of a respectable majority in the Council.”

“Very well, then, look upon yourself as elected. We have had older men long enough.”

When he was gone Farfrae said musingly, “See now how it’s ourselves that are ruled by the Powers above us! We plan this, but we do that. If they want to make me Mayor I will stay, and Henchard must rave as he will.”

From this evening onward Lucetta was very uneasy. If she had not been imprudence incarnate she would not have acted as she did when she met Henchard by accident a day or two later. It was in the bustle of the market, when no one could readily notice their discourse.

“Michael,” said she, “I must again ask you what I asked you months ago — to return me any letters or papers of mine that you may have — unless you have destroyed them? You must see how desirable it is that the time at Jersey should be blotted out, for the good of all parties.”

“Why, bless the woman! — I packed up every scrap of your handwriting to give you in the coach — but you never appeared.”

She explained how the death of her aunt had prevented her taking the journey on that day. “And what became of the parcel then?” she asked.

He could not say — he would consider. When she was gone he recollected that he had left a heap of useless papers in his former dining-room safe — built up in the wall of his old house — now occupied by Farfrae. The letters might have been amongst them.

A grotesque grin shaped itself on Henchard’s face. Had that safe been opened?

On the very evening which followed this there was a great ringing of bells in Casterbridge, and the combined brass, wood, catgut, and leather bands played round the town with more prodigality of percussion-notes than ever. Farfrae was Mayor — the two-hundredth odd of a series forming an elective dynasty dating back to the days of Charles I— and the fair Lucetta was the courted of the town. . . . But, Ah! the worm i’ the bud — Henchard; what he could tell!

He, in the meantime, festering with indignation at some erroneous intelligence of Farfrae’s opposition to the scheme for installing him in the little seed-shop, was greeted with the news of the municipal election (which, by reason of Farfrae’s comparative youth and his Scottish nativity — a thing unprecedented in the case — had an interest far beyond the ordinary). The bell-ringing and the band-playing, loud as Tamerlane’s trumpet, goaded the downfallen Henchard indescribably: the ousting now seemed to him to be complete.

The next morning he went to the corn-yard as usual, and about eleven o’clock Donald entered through the green door, with no trace of the worshipful about him. The yet more emphatic change of places between him and Henchard which this election had established renewed a slight embarrassment in the manner of the modest young man; but Henchard showed the front of one who had overlooked all this; and Farfrae met his amenities half-way at once.

“I was going to ask you,” said Henchard, “about a packet that I may possibly have left in my old safe in the dining-room.” He added particulars.

“If so, it is there now,” said Farfrae. “I have never opened the safe at all as yet; for I keep ma papers at the bank, to sleep easy o’ nights.”

“It was not of much consequence — to me,” said Henchard. “But I’ll call for it this evening, if you don’t mind?”

It was quite late when he fulfilled his promise. He had primed himself with grog, as he did very frequently now, and a curl of sardonic humour hung on his lip as he approached the house, as though he were contemplating some terrible form of amusement. Whatever it was, the incident of his entry did not diminish its force, this being his first visit to the house since he had lived there as owner. The ring of the bell spoke to him like the voice of a familiar drudge who had been bribed to forsake him; the movements of the doors were revivals of dead days.

Farfrae invited him into the dining-room, where he at once unlocked the iron safe built into the wall, HIS, Henchard’s safe, made by an ingenious locksmith under his direction. Farfrae drew thence the parcel, and other papers, with apologies for not having returned them.

“Never mind,” said Henchard drily. “The fact is they are letters mostly. . . . Yes,” he went on, sitting down and unfolding Lucetta’s passionate bundle, “here they be. That ever I should see ’em again! I hope Mrs. Farfrae is well after her exertions of yesterday?”

“She has felt a bit weary; and has gone to bed airly on that account.

Henchard returned to the letters, sorting them over with interest, Farfrae being seated at the other end of the dining-table. “You don’t forget, of course,” he resumed, “that curious chapter in the history of my past which I told you of, and that you gave me some assistance in? These letters are, in fact, related to that unhappy business. Though, thank God, it is all over now.”

“What became of the poor woman?” asked Farfrae.

“Luckily she married, and married well,” said Henchard. “So that these reproaches she poured out on me do not now cause me any twinges, as they might otherwise have done. . . . Just listen to what an angry woman will say!”

Farfrae, willing to humour Henchard, though quite uninterested, and bursting with yawns, gave well-mannered attention.

“‘For me,’” Henchard read, “‘there is practically no future. A creature too unconventionally devoted to you — who feels it impossible that she can be the wife of any other man; and who is yet no more to you than the first woman you meet in the street — such am I. I quite acquit you of any intention to wrong me, yet you are the door through which wrong has come to me. That in the event of your present wife’s death you will place me in her position is a consolation so far as it goes — but how far does it go? Thus I sit here, forsaken by my few acquaintance, and forsaken by you!’”

“That’s how she went on to me,” said Henchard, “acres of words like that, when what had happened was what I could not cure.”

“Yes,” said Farfrae absently, “it is the way wi’ women.” But the fact was that he knew very little of the sex; yet detecting a sort of resemblance in style between the effusions of the woman he worshipped and those of the supposed stranger, he concluded that Aphrodite ever spoke thus, whosesoever the personality she assumed.

Henchard unfolded another letter, and read it through likewise, stopping at the subscription as before. “Her name I don’t give,” he said blandly. “As I didn’t marry her, and another man did, I can scarcely do that in fairness to her.”

“Tr-rue, tr-rue,” said Farfrae. “But why didn’t you marry her when your wife Susan died?” Farfrae asked this and the other questions in the comfortably indifferent tone of one whom the matter very remotely concerned.

“Ah — well you may ask that!” said Henchard, the new-moon-shaped grin adumbrating itself again upon his mouth. “In spite of all her protestations, when I came forward to do so, as in generosity bound, she was not the woman for me.”

“She had already married another — maybe?”

Henchard seemed to think it would be sailing too near the wind to descend further into particulars, and he answered “Yes.”

“The young lady must have had a heart that bore transplanting very readily!”

“She had, she had,” said Henchard emphatically.

He opened a third and fourth letter, and read. This time he approached the conclusion as if the signature were indeed coming with the rest. But again he stopped short. The truth was that, as may be divined, he had quite intended to effect a grand catastrophe at the end of this drama by reading out the name, he had come to the house with no other thought. But sitting here in cold blood he could not do it.

Such a wrecking of hearts appalled even him. His quality was such that he could have annihilated them both in the heat of action; but to accomplish the deed by oral poison was beyond the nerve of his enmity.

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