The Romantic Adventures of a Milkmaid, by Thomas Hardy

Chapter 16

Margery duly followed up her intention by arraying herself the next morning in her loveliest guise, and keeping watch for Mr. Vine’s appearance upon the high road, feeling certain that his would form one in the procession of carts and carriages which set in towards Exonbury that day. Jim had gone by at a very early hour, and she did not see him pass. Her anticipation was verified by the advent of Mr. Vine about eleven o’clock, dressed to his highest effort; but Margery was surprised to find that, instead of her having to stop him, he pulled in towards the gate of his own accord. The invitation planned between Jim and the old man on the previous night was now promptly given, and, as may be supposed, as promptly accepted. Such a strange coincidence she had never before known. She was quite ready, and they drove onward at once.

The Review was held on some high ground a little way out of the city, and her conductor suggested that they should put up the horse at the inn, and walk to the field — a plan which pleased her well, for it was more easy to take preliminary observations on foot without being seen herself than when sitting elevated in a vehicle.

They were just in time to secure a good place near the front, and in a few minutes after their arrival the reviewing officer came on the ground. Margery’s eye had rapidly run over the troop in which Jim was enrolled, and she discerned him in one of the ranks, looking remarkably new and bright, both as to uniform and countenance. Indeed, if she had not worked herself into such a desperate state of mind she would have felt proud of him then and there. His shapely upright figure was quite noteworthy in the row of rotund yeomen on his right and left; while his charger Tony expressed by his bearing, even more than Jim, that he knew nothing about lime-carts whatever, and everything about trumpets and glory. How Jim could have scrubbed Tony to such shining blackness she could not tell, for the horse in his natural state was ingrained with lime-dust, that burnt the colour out of his coat as it did out of Jim’s hair. Now he pranced martially, and was a war-horse every inch of him.

Having discovered Jim her next search was for Mrs. Peach, and, by dint of some oblique glancing Margery indignantly discovered the widow in the most forward place of all, her head and bright face conspicuously advanced; and, what was more shocking, she had abandoned her mourning for a violet drawn-bonnet and a gay spencer, together with a parasol luxuriously fringed in a way Margery had never before seen. ‘Where did she get the money?’ said Margery, under her breath. ‘And to forget that poor sailor so soon!’

These general reflections were precipitately postponed by her discovering that Jim and the widow were perfectly alive to each other’s whereabouts, and in the interchange of telegraphic signs of affection, which on the latter’s part took the form of a playful fluttering of her handkerchief or waving of her parasol. Richard Vine had placed Margery in front of him, to protect her from the crowd, as he said, he himself surveying the scene over her bonnet. Margery would have been even more surprised than she was if she had known that Jim was not only aware of Mrs. Peach’s presence, but also of her own, the treacherous Mr. Vine having drawn out his flame-coloured handkerchief and waved it to Jim over the young woman’s head as soon as they had taken up their position.

‘My partner makes a tidy soldier, eh — Miss Tucker?’ said the senior lime-burner. ‘It is my belief as a Christian that he’s got a party here that he’s making signs to — that handsome figure o’ fun straight over-right him.’

‘Perhaps so,’ she said.

‘And it’s growing warm between ’em if I don’t mistake,’ continued the merciless Vine.

Margery was silent, biting her lip; and the troops being now set in motion, all signalling ceased for the present between soldier Hayward and his pretended sweetheart.

‘Have you a piece of paper that I could make a memorandum on, Mr. Vine?’ asked Margery.

Vine took out his pocket-book and tore a leaf from it, which he handed her with a pencil.

‘Don’t move from here — I’ll return in a minute,’ she continued, with the innocence of a woman who means mischief. And, withdrawing herself to the back, where the grass was clear, she pencilled down the words

‘JIM’S MARRIED.’

Armed with this document she crept into the throng behind the unsuspecting Mrs. Peach, slipped the paper into her pocket on the top of her handkerchief; and withdrew unobserved, rejoining Mr. Vine with a bearing of nonchalance.

By-and-by the troops were in different order, Jim taking a left-hand position almost close to Mrs. Peach. He bent down and said a few words to her. From her manner of nodding assent it was surely some arrangement about a meeting by-and-by when Jim’s drill was over, and Margery was more certain of the fact when, the Review having ended, and the people having strolled off to another part of the field where sports were to take place, Mrs. Peach tripped away in the direction of the city.

‘I’ll just say a word to my partner afore he goes off the ground, if you’ll spare me a minute,’ said the old lime-burner. ‘Please stay here till I’m back again.’ He edged along the front till he reached Jim.

‘How is she?’ said the latter.

‘In a trimming sweat,’ said Mr. Vine. ‘And my counsel to ‘ee is to carry this larry no further. ’Twill do no good. She’s as ready to make friends with ‘ee as any wife can be; and more showing off can only do harm.’

‘But I must finish off with a spurt,’ said Jim. ‘And this is how I am going to do it. I have arranged with Mrs. Peach that, as soon as we soldiers have entered the town and been dismissed, I’ll meet her there. It is really to say good-bye, but she don’t know that; and I wanted it to look like a lopement to Margery’s eyes. When I’m clear of Mrs. Peach I’ll come back here and make it up with Margery on the spot. But don’t say I’m coming, or she may be inclined to throw off again. Just hint to her that I may be meaning to be off to London with the widow.’

The old man still insisted that this was going too far.

‘No, no, it isn’t,’ said Jim. ‘I know how to manage her. ’Twill just mellow her heart nicely by the time I come back. I must bring her down real tender, or ’twill all fail.’

His senior reluctantly gave in and returned to Margery. A short time afterwards the Yeomanry hand struck up, and Jim with the regiment followed towards Exonbury.

‘Yes, yes; they are going to meet,’ said Margery to herself, perceiving that Mrs. Peach had so timed her departure as to be in the town at Jim’s dismounting.

‘Now we will go and see the games,’ said Mr. Vine; ‘they are really worth seeing. There’s greasy poles, and jumping in sacks, and other trials of the intellect, that nobody ought to miss who wants to be abreast of his generation.’

Margery felt so indignant at the apparent assignation, which seemed about to take place despite her anonymous writing, that she helplessly assented to go anywhere, dropping behind Vine, that he might not see her mood.

Jim followed out his programme with literal exactness. No sooner was the troop dismissed in the city than he sent Tony to stable and joined Mrs. Peach, who stood on the edge of the pavement expecting him. But this acquaintance was to end: he meant to part from her for ever and in the quickest time, though civilly; for it was important to be with Margery as soon as possible. He had nearly completed the manoeuvre to his satisfaction when, in drawing her handkerchief from her pocket to wipe the tears from her eyes, Mrs. Peach’s hand grasped the paper, which she read at once.

‘What! is that true?’ she said, holding it out to Jim.

Jim started and admitted that it was, beginning an elaborate explanation and apologies. But Mrs. Peach was thoroughly roused, and then overcome. ‘He’s married, he’s married!’ she said, and swooned, or feigned to swoon, so that Jim was obliged to support her.

‘He’s married, he’s married!’ said a boy hard by who watched the scene with interest.

‘He’s married, he’s married!’ said a hilarious group of other boys near, with smiles several inches broad, and shining teeth; and so the exclamation echoed down the street.

Jim cursed his ill-luck; the loss of time that this dilemma entailed grew serious; for Mrs. Peach was now in such a hysterical state that he could not leave her with any good grace or feeling. It was necessary to take her to a refreshment room, lavish restoratives upon her, and altogether to waste nearly half an hour. When she had kept him as long as she chose, she forgave him; and thus at last he got away, his heart swelling with tenderness towards Margery. He at once hurried up the street to effect the reconciliation with her.

‘How shall I do it?’ he said to himself. ‘Why, I’ll step round to her side, fish for her hand, draw it through my arm as if I wasn’t aware of it. Then she’ll look in my face, I shall look in hers, and we shall march off the field triumphant, and the thing will be done without takings or tears.’

He entered the field and went straight as an arrow to the place appointed for the meeting. It was at the back of a refreshment tent outside the mass of spectators, and divided from their view by the tent itself. He turned the corner of the canvas, and there beheld Vine at the indicated spot. But Margery was not with him.

Vine’s hat was thrust back into his poll. His face was pale, and his manner bewildered. ‘Hullo? what’s the matter?’ said Jim. ‘Where’s my Margery?’

‘You’ve carried this footy game too far, my man!’ exclaimed Vine, with the air of a friend who has ‘always told you so.’ ‘You ought to have dropped it several days ago, when she would have come to ‘ee like a cooing dove. Now this is the end o’t!’

‘Hey! what, my Margery? Has anything happened, for God’s sake?’

‘She’s gone.’

‘Where to?’

‘That’s more than earthly man can tell! I never see such a thing! ’Twas a stroke o’ the black art — as if she were sperrited away. When we got to the games I said — mind, you told me to! — I said, “Jim Hayward thinks o’ going off to London with that widow woman”— mind you told me to! She showed no wonderment, though a’ seemed very low. Then she said to me, “I don’t like standing here in this slummocky crowd. I shall feel more at home among the gentlepeople.” And then she went to where the carriages were drawn up, and near her there was a grand coach, a-blazing with lions and unicorns, and hauled by two coal-black horses. I hardly thought much of it then, and by degrees lost sight of her behind it. Presently the other carriages moved off, and I thought still to see her standing there. But no, she had vanished; and then I saw the grand coach rolling away, and glimpsed Margery in it, beside a fine dark gentleman with black mustachios, and a very pale prince-like face. As soon as the horses got into the hard road they rattled on like hell-and-skimmer, and went out of sight in the dust, and — that’s all. If you’d come back a little sooner you’d ha’ caught her.’

Jim had turned whiter than his pipeclay. ‘O, this is too bad — too bad!’ he cried in anguish, striking his brow. ‘That paper and that fainting woman kept me so long. Who could have done it? But ’tis my fault. I’ve stung her too much. I shouldn’t have carried it so far.’

‘You shouldn’t — just what I said,’ replied his senior.

‘She thinks I’ve gone off with that cust widow; and to spite me she’s gone off with the man! Do you know who that stranger wi’ the lions and unicorns is? Why, ’tis that foreigner who calls himself a Baron, and took Mount Lodge for six months last year to make mischief — a villain! O, my Margery — that it should come to this! She’s lost, she’s ruined! — Which way did they go?’

Jim turned to follow in the direction indicated, when, behold, there stood at his back her father, Dairyman Tucker.

‘Now look here, young man,’ said Dairyman Tucker. ‘I’ve just heard all that wailing — and straightway will ask ‘ee to stop it sharp. ’Tis like your brazen impudence to teave and wail when you be another woman’s husband; yes, faith, I see’d her a-fainting in yer arms when you wanted to get away from her, and honest folk a-standing round who knew you’d married her, and said so. I heard it, though you didn’t see me. “He’s married!” says they. Some sly register-office business, no doubt; but sly doings will out. As for Margery — who’s to be called higher titles in these parts hencefor’ard — I’m her father, and I say it’s all right what she’s done. Don’t I know private news, hey? Haven’t I just learnt that secret weddings of high people can happen at expected deathbeds by special licence, as well as low people at registrars’ offices? And can’t husbands come back and claim their own when they choose? Begone, young man, and leave noblemen’s wives alone; and I thank God I shall be rid of a numskull!’

Swift words of explanation rose to Jim’s lips, but they paused there and died. At that last moment he could not, as Margery’s husband, announce Margery’s shame and his own, and transform her father’s triumph to wretchedness at a blow.

‘I— I— must leave here,’ he stammered. Going from the place in an opposite course to that of the fugitives, he doubled when out of sight, and in an incredibly short space had entered the town. Here he made inquiries for the emblazoned carriage, and gained from one or two persons a general idea of its route. They thought it had taken the highway to London. Saddling poor Tony before he had half eaten his corn, Jim galloped along the same road.

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