The Romantic Adventures of a Milkmaid, by Thomas Hardy

Chapter 15

Seeing that Jim lived several miles from the widow, Margery was rather surprised, and even felt a slight sinking of the heart, when her new acquaintance appeared at her door so soon as the evening of the following Monday. She asked Margery to walk out with her, which the young woman readily did.

‘I am come at once,’ said the widow breathlessly, as soon as they were in the lane, ‘for it is so exciting that I can’t keep it. I must tell it to somebody, if only a bird, or a cat, or a garden snail.’

‘What is it?’ asked her companion.

‘I’ve pulled grass from my husband’s grave to cure it — wove the blades into true lover’s knots; took off my shoes upon the sod; but, avast, my shipmate — ’

‘Upon the sod — why?’

‘To feel the damp earth he’s in, and make the sense of it enter my soul. But no. It has swelled to a head; he is going to meet me at the Yeomanry Review.’

‘The master lime-burner?’

The widow nodded.

‘When is it to be?’

‘To-morrow. He looks so lovely in his accoutrements! He’s such a splendid soldier; that was the last straw that kindled my soul to say yes. He’s home from Exonbury for a night between the drills,’ continued Mrs. Peach. ‘He goes back to-morrow morning for the Review, and when it’s over he’s going to meet me. But, guide my heart, there he is!’

Her exclamation had rise in the sudden appearance of a brilliant red uniform through the trees, and the tramp of a horse carrying the wearer thereof. In another half-minute the military gentleman would have turned the corner, and faced them.

‘He’d better not see me; he’ll think I know too much,’ said Margery precipitately. ‘I’ll go up here.’

The widow, whose thoughts had been of the same cast, seemed much relieved to see Margery disappear in the plantation, in the midst of a spring chorus of birds. Once among the trees, Margery turned her head, and, before she could see the rider’s person she recognized the horse as Tony, the lightest of three that Jim and his partner owned, for the purpose of carting out lime to their customers.

Jim, then, had joined the Yeomanry since his estrangement from Margery. A man who had worn the young Queen Victoria’s uniform for seven days only could not be expected to look as if it were part of his person, in the manner of long-trained soldiers; but he was a well-formed young fellow, and of an age when few positions came amiss to one who has the capacity to adapt himself to circumstances.

Meeting the blushing Mrs. Peach (to whom Margery in her mind sternly denied the right to blush at all), Jim alighted and moved on with her, probably at Mrs. Peach’s own suggestion; so that what they said, how long they remained together, and how they parted, Margery knew not. She might have known some of these things by waiting; but the presence of Jim had bred in her heart a sudden disgust for the widow, and a general sense of discomfiture. She went away in an opposite direction, turning her head and saying to the unconscious Jim, ‘There’s a fine rod in pickle for you, my gentleman, if you carry out that pretty scheme!’

Jim’s military coup had decidedly astonished her. What he might do next she could not conjecture. The idea of his doing anything sufficiently brilliant to arrest her attention would have seemed ludicrous, had not Jim, by entering the Yeomanry, revealed a capacity for dazzling exploits which made it unsafe to predict any limitation to his powers.

Margery was now excited. The daring of the wretched Jim in bursting into scarlet amazed her as much as his doubtful acquaintanceship with the demonstrative Mrs. Peach. To go to that Review, to watch the pair, to eclipse Mrs. Peach in brilliancy, to meet and pass them in withering contempt — if she only could do it! But, alas! she was a forsaken woman.

‘If the Baron were alive, or in England,’ she said to herself (for sometimes she thought he might possibly be alive), ‘and he were to take me to this Review, wouldn’t I show that forward Mrs. Peach what a lady is like, and keep among the select company, and not mix with the common people at all!’

It might at first sight be thought that the best course for Margery at this juncture would have been to go to Jim, and nip the intrigue in the bud without further scruple. But her own declaration in after days was that whoever could say that was far from realizing her situation. It was hard to break such ice as divided their two lives now, and to attempt it at that moment was a too humiliating proclamation of defeat. The only plan she could think of — perhaps not a wise one in the circumstances — was to go to the Review herself; and be the gayest there.

A method of doing this with some propriety soon occurred to her. She dared not ask her father, who scorned to waste time in sight-seeing, and whose animosity towards Jim knew no abatement; but she might call on her old acquaintance, Mr. Vine, Jim’s partner, who would probably be going with the rest of the holiday-folk, and ask if she might accompany him in his spring-trap. She had no sooner perceived the feasibility of this, through her being at her grandmother’s, than she decided to meet with the old man early the next morning.

In the meantime Jim and Mrs. Peach had walked slowly along the road together, Jim leading the horse, and Mrs. Peach informing him that her father, the gardener, was at Jim’s village further on, and that she had come to meet him. Jim, for reasons of his own, was going to sleep at his partner’s that night, and thus their route was the same. The shades of eve closed in upon them as they walked, and by the time they reached the lime-kiln, which it was necessary to pass to get to the village, it was quite dark. Jim stopped at the kiln, to see if matters had progressed rightly in his seven days’ absence, and Mrs. Peach, who stuck to him like a teazle, stopped also, saying she would wait for her father there.

She held the horse while he ascended to the top of the kiln. Then rejoining her, and not quite knowing what to do, he stood beside her looking at the flames, which to-night burnt up brightly, shining a long way into the dark air, even up to the ramparts of the earthwork above them, and overhead into the bosoms of the clouds.

It was during this proceeding that a carriage, drawn by a pair of dark horses, came along the turnpike road. The light of the kiln caused the horses to swerve a little, and the occupant of the carriage looked out. He saw the bluish, lightning-like flames from the limestone, rising from the top of the furnace, and hard by the figures of Jim Hayward, the widow, and the horse, standing out with spectral distinctness against the mass of night behind. The scene wore the aspect of some unholy assignation in Pandaemonium, and it was all the more impressive from the fact that both Jim and the woman were quite unconscious of the striking spectacle they presented. The gentleman in the carriage watched them till he was borne out of sight.

Having seen to the kiln, Jim and the widow walked on again, and soon Mrs. Peach’s father met them, and relieved Jim of the lady. When they had parted, Jim, with an expiration not unlike a breath of relief; went on to Mr. Vine’s, and, having put the horse into the stable, entered the house. His partner was seated at the table, solacing himself after the labours of the day by luxurious alternations between a long clay pipe and a mug of perry.

‘Well,’ said Jim eagerly, ‘what’s the news — how do she take it?’

‘Sit down — sit down,’ said Vine. ‘’Tis working well; not but that I deserve something o’ thee for the trouble I’ve had in watching her. The soldiering was a fine move; but the woman is a better! — who invented it?’

‘I myself,’ said Jim modestly.

‘Well; jealousy is making her rise like a thunderstorm, and in a day or two you’ll have her for the asking, my sonny. What’s the next step?’

‘The widow is getting rather a weight upon a feller, worse luck,’ said Jim. ‘But I must keep it up until to-morrow, at any rate. I have promised to see her at the Review, and now the great thing is that Margery should see we a-smiling together — I in my full-dress uniform and clinking arms o’ war. ’Twill be a good strong sting, and will end the business, I hope. Couldn’t you manage to put the hoss in and drive her there? She’d go if you were to ask her.’

‘With all my heart,’ said Mr. Vine, moistening the end of a new pipe in his perry. ‘I can call at her grammer’s for her —’twill be all in my way.’

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