The Romantic Adventures of a Milkmaid, by Thomas Hardy

Chapter 12

Margery could hardly repress a scream. As for flushing and blushing, she had turned hot and turned pale so many times already during the evening, that there was really now nothing of that sort left for her to do; and she remained in complexion much as before. O, the mockery of it! That secret dream — that sweet word ‘Baroness!’— which had sustained her all the way along. Instead of a Baron there stood Jim, white-waistcoated, demure, every hair in place, and, if she mistook not, even a deedy spark in his eye.

Jim’s surprising presence on the scene may be briefly accounted for. His resolve to seek an explanation with the Baron at all risks had proved unexpectedly easy: the interview had at once been granted, and then, seeing the crisis at which matters stood, the Baron had generously revealed to Jim the whole of his indebtedness to and knowledge of Margery. The truth of the Baron’s statement, the innocent nature as yet of the acquaintanceship, his sorrow for the rupture he had produced, was so evident that, far from having any further doubts of his patron, Jim frankly asked his advice on the next step to be pursued. At this stage the Baron fell ill, and, desiring much to see the two young people united before his death, he had sent anew Hayward, and proposed the plan which they were to now about to attempt — a marriage at the bedside of the sick man by special licence. The influence at Lambeth of some friends of the Baron’s, and the charitable bequests of his late mother to several deserving Church funds, were generally supposed to be among the reasons why the application for the licence was not refused.

This, however, is of small consequence. The Baron probably knew, in proposing this method of celebrating the marriage, that his enormous power over her would outweigh any sentimental obstacles which she might set up — inward objections that, without his presence and firmness, might prove too much for her acquiescence. Doubtless he foresaw, too, the advantage of getting her into the house before making the individuality of her husband clear to her mind.

Now, the Baron’s conjectures were right as to the event, but wrong as to the motives. Margery was a perfect little dissembler on some occasions, and one of them was when she wished to hide any sudden mortification that might bring her into ridicule. She had no sooner recovered from her first fit of discomfiture than pride bade her suffer anything rather than reveal her absurd disappointment. Hence the scene progressed as follows:

‘Come here, Hayward,’ said the invalid. Hayward came near. The Baron, holding her hand in one of his own, and her lover’s in the other, continued, ‘Will you, in spite of your recent vexation with her, marry her now if she does not refuse?’

‘I will, sir,’ said Jim promptly.

‘And Margery, what do you say? It is merely a setting of things right. You have already promised this young man to be his wife, and should, of course, perform your promise. You don’t dislike Jim?’

‘O, no, sir,’ she said, in a low, dry voice.

‘I like him better than I can tell you,’ said the Baron. ‘He is an honourable man, and will make you a good husband. You must remember that marriage is a life contract, in which general compatibility of temper and worldly position is of more importance than fleeting passion, which never long survives. Now, will you, at my earnest request, and before I go to the South of Europe to die, agree to make this good man happy? I have expressed your views on the subject, haven’t I, Hayward?’

‘To a T, sir,’ said Jim emphatically; with a motion of raising his hat to his influential ally, till he remembered he had no hat on. ‘And, though I could hardly expect Margery to gie in for my asking, I feels she ought to gie in for yours.’

‘And you accept him, my little friend?’

‘Yes, sir,’ she murmured, ‘if he’ll agree to a thing or two.’

‘Doubtless he will — what are they?’

‘That I shall not be made to live with him till I am in the mind for it; and that my having him shall be kept unknown for the present.’

‘Well, what do you think of it, Hayward?’

‘Anything that you or she may wish I’ll do, my noble lord,’ said Jim.

‘Well, her request is not unreasonable, seeing that the proceedings are, on my account, a little hurried. So we’ll proceed. You rather expected this, from my allusion to a ceremony in my note, did you not, Margery?’

‘Yes, sir,’ said she, with an effort.

‘Good; I thought so; you looked so little surprised.’

We now leave the scene in the bedroom for a spot not many yards off.

When the carriage seen by Margery at the door was driving up to Mount Lodge it arrested the attention, not only of the young girl, but of a man who had for some time been moving slowly about the opposite lawn, engaged in some operation while he smoked a short pipe. A short observation of his doings would have shown that he was sheltering some delicate plants from an expected frost, and that he was the gardener. When the light at the door fell upon the entering forms of parson and lawyer — the former a stranger, the latter known to him — the gardener walked thoughtfully round the house. Reaching the small side-entrance he was further surprised to see it noiselessly open to a young woman, in whose momentarily illumined features he discerned those of Margery Tucker.

Altogether there was something curious in this. The man returned to the lawn front, and perfunctorily went on putting shelters over certain plants, though his thoughts were plainly otherwise engaged. On the grass his footsteps were noiseless, and the night moreover being still, he could presently hear a murmuring from the bedroom window over his head.

The gardener took from a tree a ladder that he had used in nailing that day, set it under the window, and ascended half-way, hoodwinking his conscience by seizing a nail or two with his hand and testing their twig-supporting powers. He soon heard enough to satisfy him. The words of a church-service in the strange parson’s voice were audible in snatches through the blind: they were words he knew to be part of the solemnization of matrimony, such as ‘wedded wife,’ ‘richer for poorer,’ and so on; the less familiar parts being a more or less confused sound.

Satisfied that a wedding was in progress there, the gardener did not for a moment dream that one of the contracting parties could be other than the sick Baron. He descended the ladder and again walked round the house, waiting only till he saw Margery emerge from the same little door; when, fearing that he might be discovered, he withdrew in the direction of his own cottage.

This building stood at the lower corner of the garden, and as soon as the gardener entered he was accosted by a handsome woman in a widow’s cap, who called him father, and said that supper had been ready for a long time. They sat down, but during the meal the gardener was so abstracted and silent that his daughter put her head winningly to one side and said, ‘What is it, father dear?’

‘Ah — what is it!’ cried the gardener. ‘Something that makes very little difference to me, but may be of great account to you, if you play your cards well. THERE’S BEEN A WEDDING AT THE LODGE TO-NIGHT!’ He related to her, with a caution to secrecy, all that he had heard and seen.

‘We are folk that have got to get their living,’ he said, ‘and such ones mustn’t tell tales about their betters — Lord forgive the mockery of the word! — but there’s something to be made of it. She’s a nice maid; so, Harriet, do you take the first chance you get for honouring her, before others know what has happened. Since this is done so privately it will be kept private for some time — till after his death, no question; — when I expect she’ll take this house for herself; and blaze out as a widow-lady ten thousand pound strong. You being a widow, she may make you her company-keeper; and so you’ll have a home by a little contriving.’

While this conversation progressed at the gardener’s Margery was on her way out of the Baron’s house. She was, indeed, married. But, as we know, she was not married to the Baron. The ceremony over she seemed but little discomposed, and expressed a wish to return alone as she had come. To this, of course, no objection could be offered under the terms of the agreement, and wishing Jim a frigid good-bye, and the Baron a very quiet farewell, she went out by the door which had admitted her. Once safe and alone in the darkness of the park she burst into tears, which dropped upon the grass as she passed along. In the Baron’s room she had seemed scared and helpless; now her reason and emotions returned. The further she got away from the glamour of that room, and the influence of its occupant, the more she became of opinion that she had acted foolishly. She had disobediently left her father’s house, to obey him here. She had pleased everybody but herself.

However, thinking was now too late. How she got into her grandmother’s house she hardly knew; but without a supper, and without confronting either her relative or Edy, she went to bed.

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