The Romantic Adventures of a Milkmaid, by Thomas Hardy

Chapter 14

Margery returned home, as she had decided, and resumed her old life at Silverthorn. And seeing her father’s animosity towards Jim, she told him not a word of the marriage.

Her inner life, however, was not what it once had been. She had suffered a mental and emotional displacement — a shock, which had set a shade of astonishment on her face as a permanent thing.

Her indignation with the Baron for collusion with Jim, at first bitter, lessened with the lapse of a few weeks, and at length vanished in the interest of some tidings she received one day.

The Baron was not dead, but he was no longer at the Lodge. To the surprise of the physicians, a sufficient improvement had taken place in his condition to permit of his removal before the cold weather came. His desire for removal had been such, indeed, that it was advisable to carry it out at almost any risk. The plan adopted had been to have him borne on men’s shoulders in a sort of palanquin to the shore near Idmouth, a distance of several miles, where a yacht lay awaiting him. By this means the noise and jolting of a carriage, along irregular bye-roads, were avoided. The singular procession over the fields took place at night, and was witnessed by but few people, one being a labouring man, who described the scene to Margery. When the seaside was reached a long, narrow gangway was laid from the deck of the yacht to the shore, which was so steep as to allow the yacht to lie quite near. The men, with their burden, ascended by the light of lanterns, the sick man was laid in the cabin, and, as soon as his bearers had returned to the shore, the gangway was removed, a rope was heard skirring over wood in the darkness, the yacht quivered, spread her woven wings to the air, and moved away. Soon she was but a small, shapeless phantom upon the wide breast of the sea.

It was said that the yacht was bound for Algiers.

When the inimical autumn and winter weather came on, Margery wondered if he were still alive. The house being shut up, and the servants gone, she had no means of knowing, till, on a particular Saturday, her father drove her to Exonbury market. Here, in attending to his business, he left her to herself for awhile. Walking in a quiet street in the professional quarter of the town, she saw coming towards her the solicitor who had been present at the wedding, and who had acted for the Baron in various small local matters during his brief residence at the Lodge.

She reddened to peony hues, averted her eyes, and would have passed him. But he crossed over and barred the pavement, and when she met his glance he was looking with friendly severity at her. The street was quiet, and he said in a low voice, ‘How’s the husband?’

‘I don’t know, sir,’ said she.

‘What — and are your stipulations about secrecy and separate living still in force?’

‘They will always be,’ she replied decisively. ‘Mr. Hayward and I agreed on the point, and we have not the slightest wish to change the arrangement.’

‘H’m. Then ’tis Miss Tucker to the world; Mrs. Hayward to me and one or two others only?’

Margery nodded. Then she nerved herself by an effort, and, though blushing painfully, asked, ‘May I put one question, sir? Is the Baron dead?’

‘He is dead to you and to all of us. Why should you ask?’

‘Because, if he’s alive, I am sorry I married James Hayward. If he is dead I do not much mind my marriage.’

‘I repeat, he is dead to you,’ said the lawyer emphatically. ‘I’ll tell you all I know. My professional services for him ended with his departure from this country; but I think I should have heard from him if he had been alive still. I have not heard at all: and this, taken in connection with the nature of his illness, leaves no doubt in my mind that he is dead.’

Margery sighed, and thanking the lawyer she left him with a tear for the Baron in her eye. After this incident she became more restful; and the time drew on for her periodical visit to her grandmother.

A few days subsequent to her arrival her aged relative asked her to go with a message to the gardener at Mount Lodge (who still lived on there, keeping the grounds in order for the landlord). Margery hated that direction now, but she went. The Lodge, which she saw over the trees, was to her like a skull from which the warm and living flesh had vanished. It was twilight by the time she reached the cottage at the bottom of the Lodge garden, and, the room being illuminated within, she saw through the window a woman she had never seen before. She was dark, and rather handsome, and when Margery knocked she opened the door. It was the gardener’s widowed daughter, who had been advised to make friends with Margery.

She now found her opportunity. Margery’s errand was soon completed, the young widow, to her surprise, treating her with preternatural respect, and afterwards offering to accompany her home. Margery was not sorry to have a companion in the gloom, and they walked on together. The widow, Mrs. Peach, was demonstrative and confidential; and told Margery all about herself. She had come quite recently to live with her father — during the Baron’s illness, in fact — and her husband had been captain of a ketch.

‘I saw you one morning, ma’am,’ she said. ‘But you didn’t see me. It was when you were crossing the hill in sight of the Lodge. You looked at it, and sighed. ’Tis the lot of widows to sigh, ma’am, is it not?’

‘Widows — yes, I suppose; but what do you mean?’

Mrs. Peach lowered her voice. ‘I can’t say more, ma’am, with proper respect. But there seems to be no question of the poor Baron’s death; and though these foreign princes can take (as my poor husband used to tell me) what they call left-handed wives, and leave them behind when they go abroad, widowhood is widowhood, left-handed or right. And really, to be the left-handed wife of a foreign baron is nobler than to be married all round to a common man. You’ll excuse my freedom, ma’am; but being a widow myself, I have pitied you from my heart; so young as you are, and having to keep it a secret, and (excusing me) having no money out of his vast riches because ’tis swallowed up by Baroness Number One.’

Now Margery did not understand a word more of this than the bare fact that Mrs. Peach suspected her to be the Baron’s undowered widow, and such was the milkmaid’s nature that she did not deny the widow’s impeachment. The latter continued —

‘But ah, ma’am, all your troubles are straight backward in your memory — while I have troubles before as well as grief behind.’

‘What may they be, Mrs. Peach?’ inquired Margery with an air of the Baroness.

The other dropped her voice to revelation tones: ‘I have been forgetful enough of my first man to lose my heart to a second!’

‘You shouldn’t do that — it is wrong. You should control your feelings.’

‘But how am I to control my feelings?’

‘By going to your dead husband’s grave, and things of that sort.’

‘Do you go to your dead husband’s grave?’

‘How can I go to Algiers?’

‘Ah — too true! Well, I’ve tried everything to cure myself — read the words against it, gone to the Table the first Sunday of every month, and all sorts. But, avast, my shipmate! — as my poor man used to say — there ’tis just the same. In short, I’ve made up my mind to encourage the new one. ’Tis flattering that I, a new-comer, should have been found out by a young man so soon.’

‘Who is he?’ said Margery listlessly.

‘A master lime-burner.’

‘A master lime-burner?’

‘That’s his profession. He’s a partner-in-co., doing very well indeed.’

‘But what’s his name?’

‘I don’t like to tell you his name, for, though ’tis night, that covers all shame-facedness, my face is as hot as a ‘Talian iron, I declare! Do you just feel it.’

Margery put her hand on Mrs. Peach’s face, and, sure enough, hot it was. ‘Does he come courting?’ she asked quickly.

‘Well only in the way of business. He never comes unless lime is wanted in the neighbourhood. He’s in the Yeomanry, too, and will look very fine when he comes out in regimentals for drill in May.’

‘Oh — in the Yeomanry,’ Margery said, with a slight relief. ‘Then it can’t — is he a young man?’

‘Yes, junior partner-in-co.’

The description had an odd resemblance to Jim, of whom Margery had not heard a word for months. He had promised silence and absence, and had fulfilled his promise literally, with a gratuitous addition that was rather amazing, if indeed it were Jim whom the widow loved. One point in the description puzzled Margery: Jim was not in the Yeomanry, unless, by a surprising development of enterprise, he had entered it recently.

At parting Margery said, with an interest quite tender, ‘I should like to see you again, Mrs. Peach, and hear of your attachment. When can you call?’

‘Oh — any time, dear Baroness, I’m sure — if you think I am good enough.’

‘Indeed, I do, Mrs. Peach. Come as soon as you’ve seen the lime-burner again.’

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