The Mayor of Casterbridge, by Thomas Hardy

Chapter 41.

Henchard went home. The morning having now fully broke he lit his fire, and sat abstractedly beside it. He had not sat there long when a gentle footstep approached the house and entered the passage, a finger tapping lightly at the door. Henchard’s face brightened, for he knew the motions to be Elizabeth’s. She came into his room, looking wan and sad.

“Have you heard?” she asked. “Mrs. Farfrae! She is — dead! Yes, indeed — about an hour ago!”

“I know it,” said Henchard. “I have but lately come in from there. It is so very good of ‘ee, Elizabeth, to come and tell me. You must be so tired out, too, with sitting up. Now do you bide here with me this morning. You can go and rest in the other room; and I will call ‘ee when breakfast is ready.”

To please him, and herself — for his recent kindliness was winning a surprised gratitude from the lonely girl — she did as he bade her, and lay down on a sort of couch which Henchard had rigged up out of a settle in the adjoining room. She could hear him moving about in his preparations; but her mind ran most strongly on Lucetta, whose death in such fulness of life and amid such cheerful hopes of maternity was appallingly unexpected. Presently she fell asleep.

Meanwhile her stepfather in the outer room had set the breakfast in readiness; but finding that she dozed he would not call her; he waited on, looking into the fire and keeping the kettle boiling with house-wifely care, as if it were an honour to have her in his house. In truth, a great change had come over him with regard to her, and he was developing the dream of a future lit by her filial presence, as though that way alone could happiness lie.

He was disturbed by another knock at the door, and rose to open it, rather deprecating a call from anybody just then. A stoutly built man stood on the doorstep, with an alien, unfamiliar air about his figure and bearing — an air which might have been called colonial by people of cosmopolitan experience. It was the man who had asked the way at Peter’s finger. Henchard nodded, and looked inquiry.

“Good morning, good morning,” said the stranger with profuse heartiness. “Is it Mr. Henchard I am talking to?”

“My name is Henchard.”

“Then I’ve caught ‘ee at home — that’s right. Morning’s the time for business, says I. Can I have a few words with you?”

“By all means,” Henchard answered, showing the way in.

“You may remember me?” said his visitor, seating himself.

Henchard observed him indifferently, and shook his head.

“Well — perhaps you may not. My name is Newson.”

Henchard’s face and eyes seemed to die. The other did not notice it. “I know the name well,” Henchard said at last, looking on the floor.

“I make no doubt of that. Well, the fact is, I’ve been looking for ‘ee this fortnight past. I landed at Havenpool and went through Casterbridge on my way to Falmouth, and when I got there, they told me you had some years before been living at Casterbridge. Back came I again, and by long and by late I got here by coach, ten minutes ago. ‘He lives down by the mill,’ says they. So here I am. Now — that transaction between us some twenty years agone —’tis that I’ve called about. ’Twas a curious business. I was younger then than I am now, and perhaps the less said about it, in one sense, the better.”

“Curious business! ’Twas worse than curious. I cannot even allow that I’m the man you met then. I was not in my senses, and a man’s senses are himself.”

“We were young and thoughtless,” said Newson. “However, I’ve come to mend matters rather than open arguments. Poor Susan — hers was a strange experience.”

“She was a warm-hearted, home-spun woman. She was not what they call shrewd or sharp at all — better she had been.”

“She was not.”

“As you in all likelihood know, she was simple-minded enough to think that the sale was in a way binding. She was as guiltless o’ wrong-doing in that particular as a saint in the clouds.”

“I know it, I know it. I found it out directly,” said Henchard, still with averted eyes. “There lay the sting o’t to me. If she had seen it as what it was she would never have left me. Never! But how should she be expected to know? What advantages had she? None. She could write her own name, and no more.

“Well, it was not in my heart to undeceive her when the deed was done,” said the sailor of former days. “I thought, and there was not much vanity in thinking it, that she would be happier with me. She was fairly happy, and I never would have undeceived her till the day of her death. Your child died; she had another, and all went well. But a time came — mind me, a time always does come. A time came — it was some while after she and I and the child returned from America — when somebody she had confided her history to, told her my claim to her was a mockery, and made a jest of her belief in my right. After that she was never happy with me. She pined and pined, and socked and sighed. She said she must leave me, and then came the question of our child. Then a man advised me how to act, and I did it, for I thought it was best. I left her at Falmouth, and went off to sea. When I got to the other side of the Atlantic there was a storm, and it was supposed that a lot of us, including myself, had been washed overboard. I got ashore at Newfoundland, and then I asked myself what I should do.

“‘Since I’m here, here I’ll bide,’ I thought to myself; ‘’twill be most kindness to her, now she’s taken against me, to let her believe me lost, for,’ I thought, ‘while she supposes us both alive she’ll be miserable; but if she thinks me dead she’ll go back to him, and the child will have a home.’ I’ve never returned to this country till a month ago, and I found that, as I supposed, she went to you, and my daughter with her. They told me in Falmouth that Susan was dead. But my Elizabeth-Jane — where is she?”

“Dead likewise,” said Henchard doggedly. “Surely you learnt that too?”

The sailor started up, and took an enervated pace or two down the room. “Dead!” he said, in a low voice. “Then what’s the use of my money to me?”

Henchard, without answering, shook his head as if that were rather a question for Newson himself than for him.

“Where is she buried?” the traveller inquired.

“Beside her mother,” said Henchard, in the same stolid tones.

“When did she die?”

“A year ago and more,” replied the other without hesitation.

The sailor continued standing. Henchard never looked up from the floor. At last Newson said: “My journey hither has been for nothing! I may as well go as I came! It has served me right. I’ll trouble you no longer.”

Henchard heard the retreating footsteps of Newson upon the sanded floor, the mechanical lifting of the latch, the slow opening and closing of the door that was natural to a baulked or dejected man; but he did not turn his head. Newson’s shadow passed the window. He was gone.

Then Henchard, scarcely believing the evidence of his senses, rose from his seat amazed at what he had done. It had been the impulse of a moment. The regard he had lately acquired for Elizabeth, the new-sprung hope of his loneliness that she would be to him a daughter of whom he could feel as proud as of the actual daughter she still believed herself to be, had been stimulated by the unexpected coming of Newson to a greedy exclusiveness in relation to her; so that the sudden prospect of her loss had caused him to speak mad lies like a child, in pure mockery of consequences. He had expected questions to close in round him, and unmask his fabrication in five minutes; yet such questioning had not come. But surely they would come; Newson’s departure could be but momentary; he would learn all by inquiries in the town; and return to curse him, and carry his last treasure away!

He hastily put on his hat, and went out in the direction that Newson had taken. Newson’s back was soon visible up the road, crossing Bull-stake. Henchard followed, and saw his visitor stop at the King’s Arms, where the morning coach which had brought him waited half-an-hour for another coach which crossed there. The coach Newson had come by was now about to move again. Newson mounted, his luggage was put in, and in a few minutes the vehicle disappeared with him.

He had not so much as turned his head. It was an act of simple faith in Henchard’s words — faith so simple as to be almost sublime. The young sailor who had taken Susan Henchard on the spur of the moment and on the faith of a glance at her face, more than twenty years before, was still living and acting under the form of the grizzled traveller who had taken Henchard’s words on trust so absolute as to shame him as he stood.

Was Elizabeth-Jane to remain his by virtue of this hardy invention of a moment? “Perhaps not for long,” said he. Newson might converse with his fellow-travellers, some of whom might be Casterbridge people; and the trick would be discovered.

This probability threw Henchard into a defensive attitude, and instead of considering how best to right the wrong, and acquaint Elizabeth’s father with the truth at once, he bethought himself of ways to keep the position he had accidentally won. Towards the young woman herself his affection grew more jealously strong with each new hazard to which his claim to her was exposed.

He watched the distant highway expecting to see Newson return on foot, enlightened and indignant, to claim his child. But no figure appeared. Possibly he had spoken to nobody on the coach, but buried his grief in his own heart.

His grief! — what was it, after all, to that which he, Henchard, would feel at the loss of her? Newson’s affection cooled by years, could not equal his who had been constantly in her presence. And thus his jealous soul speciously argued to excuse the separation of father and child.

He returned to the house half expecting that she would have vanished. No; there she was — just coming out from the inner room, the marks of sleep upon her eyelids, and exhibiting a generally refreshed air.

“O father!” she said smiling. “I had no sooner lain down than I napped, though I did not mean to. I wonder I did not dream about poor Mrs. Farfrae, after thinking of her so; but I did not. How strange it is that we do not often dream of latest events, absorbing as they may be.”

“I am glad you have been able to sleep,” he said, taking her hand with anxious proprietorship — an act which gave her a pleasant surprise.

They sat down to breakfast, and Elizabeth-Jane’s thoughts reverted to Lucetta. Their sadness added charm to a countenance whose beauty had ever lain in its meditative soberness.

“Father,” she said, as soon as she recalled herself to the outspread meal, “it is so kind of you to get this nice breakfast with your own hands, and I idly asleep the while.”

“I do it every day,” he replied. “You have left me; everybody has left me; how should I live but by my own hands.”

“You are very lonely, are you not?”

“Ay, child — to a degree that you know nothing of! It is my own fault. You are the only one who has been near me for weeks. And you will come no more.”

“Why do you say that? Indeed I will, if you would like to see me.”

Henchard signified dubiousness. Though he had so lately hoped that Elizabeth-Jane might again live in his house as daughter, he would not ask her to do so now. Newson might return at any moment, and what Elizabeth would think of him for his deception it were best to bear apart from her.

When they had breakfasted his stepdaughter still lingered, till the moment arrived at which Henchard was accustomed to go to his daily work. Then she arose, and with assurance of coming again soon went up the hill in the morning sunlight.

“At this moment her heart is as warm towards me as mine is towards her, she would live with me here in this humble cottage for the asking! Yet before the evening probably he will have come, and then she will scorn me!”

This reflection, constantly repeated by Henchard to himself, accompanied him everywhere through the day. His mood was no longer that of the rebellious, ironical, reckless misadventurer; but the leaden gloom of one who has lost all that can make life interesting, or even tolerable. There would remain nobody for him to be proud of, nobody to fortify him; for Elizabeth-Jane would soon be but as a stranger, and worse. Susan, Farfrae, Lucetta, Elizabeth — all had gone from him, one after one, either by his fault or by his misfortune.

In place of them he had no interest, hobby, or desire. If he could have summoned music to his aid his existence might even now have been borne; for with Henchard music was of regal power. The merest trumpet or organ tone was enough to move him, and high harmonies transubstantiated him. But hard fate had ordained that he should be unable to call up this Divine spirit in his need.

The whole land ahead of him was as darkness itself; there was nothing to come, nothing to wait for. Yet in the natural course of life he might possibly have to linger on earth another thirty or forty years — scoffed at; at best pitied.

The thought of it was unendurable.

To the east of Casterbridge lay moors and meadows through which much water flowed. The wanderer in this direction who should stand still for a few moments on a quiet night, might hear singular symphonies from these waters, as from a lampless orchestra, all playing in their sundry tones from near and far parts of the moor. At a hole in a rotten weir they executed a recitative; where a tributary brook fell over a stone breastwork they trilled cheerily; under an arch they performed a metallic cymballing, and at Durnover Hole they hissed. The spot at which their instrumentation rose loudest was a place called Ten Hatches, whence during high springs there proceeded a very fugue of sounds.

The river here was deep and strong at all times, and the hatches on this account were raised and lowered by cogs and a winch. A patch led from the second bridge over the highway (so often mentioned) to these Hatches, crossing the stream at their head by a narrow plank-bridge. But after night-fall human beings were seldom found going that way, the path leading only to a deep reach of the stream called Blackwater, and the passage being dangerous.

Henchard, however, leaving the town by the east road, proceeded to the second, or stone bridge, and thence struck into this path of solitude, following its course beside the stream till the dark shapes of the Ten Hatches cut the sheen thrown upon the river by the weak lustre that still lingered in the west. In a second or two he stood beside the weir-hole where the water was at its deepest. He looked backwards and forwards, and no creature appeared in view. He then took off his coat and hat, and stood on the brink of the stream with his hands clasped in front of him.

While his eyes were bent on the water beneath there slowly became visible a something floating in the circular pool formed by the wash of centuries; the pool he was intending to make his death-bed. At first it was indistinct by reason of the shadow from the bank; but it emerged thence and took shape, which was that of a human body, lying stiff and stark upon the surface of the stream.

In the circular current imparted by the central flow the form was brought forward, till it passed under his eyes; and then he perceived with a sense of horror that it was HIMSELF. Not a man somewhat resembling him, but one in all respects his counterpart, his actual double, was floating as if dead in Ten Hatches Hole.

The sense of the supernatural was strong in this unhappy man, and he turned away as one might have done in the actual presence of an appalling miracle. He covered his eyes and bowed his head. Without looking again into the stream he took his coat and hat, and went slowly away.

Presently he found himself by the door of his own dwelling. To his surprise Elizabeth-Jane was standing there. She came forward, spoke, called him “father” just as before. Newson, then, had not even yet returned.

“I thought you seemed very sad this morning,” she said, “so I have come again to see you. Not that I am anything but sad myself. But everybody and everything seem against you so, and I know you must be suffering.

How this woman divined things! Yet she had not divined their whole extremity.

He said to her, “Are miracles still worked, do ye think, Elizabeth? I am not a read man. I don’t know so much as I could wish. I have tried to peruse and learn all my life; but the more I try to know the more ignorant I seem.”

“I don’t quite think there are any miracles nowadays,” she said.

“No interference in the case of desperate intentions, for instance? Well, perhaps not, in a direct way. Perhaps not. But will you come and walk with me, and I will show ‘ee what I mean.”

She agreed willingly, and he took her over the highway, and by the lonely path to Ten Hatches. He walked restlessly, as if some haunting shade, unseen of her, hovered round him and troubled his glance. She would gladly have talked of Lucetta, but feared to disturb him. When they got near the weir he stood still, and asked her to go forward and look into the pool, and tell him what she saw.

She went, and soon returned to him. “Nothing,” she said.

“Go again,” said Henchard, “and look narrowly.”

She proceeded to the river brink a second time. On her return, after some delay, she told him that she saw something floating round and round there; but what it was she could not discern. It seemed to be a bundle of old clothes.

“Are they like mine?” asked Henchard.

“Well — they are. Dear me — I wonder if — Father, let us go away!”

“Go and look once more; and then we will get home.”

She went back, and he could see her stoop till her head was close to the margin of the pool. She started up, and hastened back to his side.

“Well,” said Henchard; “what do you say now?”

“Let us go home.”

“But tell me — do — what is it floating there?”

“The effigy,” she answered hastily. “They must have thrown it into the river higher up amongst the willows at Blackwater, to get rid of it in their alarm at discovery by the magistrates, and it must have floated down here.”

“Ah — to be sure — the image o’ me! But where is the other? Why that one only? . . . That performance of theirs killed her, but kept me alive!”

Elizabeth-Jane thought and thought of these words “kept me alive,” as they slowly retraced their way to the town, and at length guessed their meaning. “Father! — I will not leave you alone like this!” she cried. “May I live with you, and tend upon you as I used to do? I do not mind your being poor. I would have agreed to come this morning, but you did not ask me.”

“May you come to me?” he cried bitterly. “Elizabeth, don’t mock me! If you only would come!”

“I will,” said she.

“How will you forgive all my roughness in former days? You cannot!”

“I have forgotten it. Talk of that no more.”

Thus she assured him, and arranged their plans for reunion; and at length each went home. Then Henchard shaved for the first time during many days, and put on clean linen, and combed his hair; and was as a man resuscitated thence-forward.

The next morning the fact turned out to be as Elizabeth-Jane had stated; the effigy was discovered by a cowherd, and that of Lucetta a little higher up in the same stream. But as little as possible was said of the matter, and the figures were privately destroyed.

Despite this natural solution of the mystery Henchard no less regarded it as an intervention that the figure should have been floating there. Elizabeth-Jane heard him say, “Who is such a reprobate as I! And yet it seems that even I be in Somebody’s hand!”

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