The Romantic Adventures of a Milkmaid, by Thomas Hardy

Chapter 17

Now Jim was quite mistaken in supposing that by leaving the field in a roundabout manner he had deceived Dairyman Tucker as to his object. That astute old man immediately divined that Jim was meaning to track the fugitives, in ignorance (as the dairyman supposed) of their lawful relation. He was soon assured of the fact, for, creeping to a remote angle of the field, he saw Jim hastening into the town. Vowing vengeance on the young lime-burner for his mischievous interference between a nobleman and his secretly-wedded wife, the dairy-farmer determined to balk him.

Tucker had ridden on to the Review ground, so that there was no necessity for him, as there had been for poor Jim, to re-enter the town before starting. The dairyman hastily untied his mare from the row of other horses, mounted, and descended to a bridle-path which would take him obliquely into the London road a mile or so ahead. The old man’s route being along one side of an equilateral triangle, while Jim’s was along two sides of the same, the former was at the point of intersection long before Hayward.

Arrived here, the dairyman pulled up and looked around. It was a spot at which the highway forked; the left arm, the more important, led on through Sherton Abbas and Melchester to London; the right to Idmouth and the coast. Nothing was visible on the white track to London; but on the other there appeared the back of a carriage, which rapidly ascended a distant hill and vanished under the trees. It was the Baron’s who, according to the sworn information of the gardener at Mount Lodge, had made Margery his wife.

The carriage having vanished, the dairyman gazed in the opposite direction, towards Exonbury. Here he beheld Jim in his regimentals, laboriously approaching on Tony’s back.

Soon he reached the forking roads, and saw the dairyman by the wayside. But Jim did not halt. Then the dairyman practised the greatest duplicity of his life.

‘Right along the London road, if you want to catch ’em!’ he said.

‘Thank ‘ee, dairyman, thank ‘ee!’ cried Jim, his pale face lighting up with gratitude, for he believed that Tucker had learnt his mistake from Vine, and had come to his assistance. Without drawing rein he diminished along the road not taken by the flying pair. The dairyman rubbed his hands with delight, and returned to the city as the cathedral clock struck five.

Jim pursued his way through the dust, up hill and down hill; but never saw ahead of him the vehicle of his search. That vehicle was passing along a diverging way at a distance of many miles from where he rode. Still he sped onwards, till Tony showed signs of breaking down; and then Jim gathered from inquiries he made that he had come the wrong way. It burst upon his mind that the dairyman, still ignorant of the truth, had misinformed him. Heavier in his heart than words can describe he turned Tony’s drooping head, and resolved to drag his way home.

But the horse was now so jaded that it was impossible to proceed far. Having gone about half a mile back he came again to a small roadside hamlet and inn, where he put up Tony for a rest and feed. As for himself, there was no quiet in him. He tried to sit and eat in the inn kitchen; but he could not stay there. He went out, and paced up and down the road.

Standing in sight of the white way by which he had come he beheld advancing towards him the horses and carriage he sought, now black and daemonic against the slanting fires of the western sun.

The why and wherefore of this sudden appearance he did not pause to consider. His resolve to intercept the carriage was instantaneous. He ran forward, and doggedly waiting barred the way to the advancing equipage.

The Baron’s coachman shouted, but Jim stood firm as a rock, and on the former attempting to push past him Jim drew his sword, resolving to cut the horses down rather than be displaced. The animals were thrown nearly back upon their haunches, and at this juncture a gentleman looked out of the window. It was the Baron himself.

‘Who’s there?’ he inquired.

‘James Hayward!’ replied the young man fiercely, ‘and he demands his wife.’

The Baron leapt out, and told the coachman to drive back out of sight and wait for him.

‘I was hastening to find you,’ he said to Jim. ‘Your wife is where she ought to be, and where you ought to be also — by your own fireside. Where’s the other woman?’

Jim, without replying, looked incredulously into the carriage as it turned. Margery was certainly not there. ‘The other woman is nothing to me,’ he said bitterly. ‘I used her to warm up Margery: I have now done with her. The question I ask, my lord, is, what business had you with Margery to-day?’

‘My business was to help her to regain the husband she had seemingly lost. I saw her; she told me you had eloped by the London road with another. I, who have — mostly — had her happiness at heart, told her I would help her to follow you if she wished. She gladly agreed; we drove after, but could hear no tidings of you in front of us. Then I took her — to your house — and there she awaits you. I promised to send you to her if human effort could do it, and was tracking you for that purpose.’

‘Then you’ve been a-pursuing after me?’

‘You and the widow.’

‘And I’ve been pursuing after you and Margery! My noble lord, your actions seem to show that I ought to believe you in this; and when you say you’ve her happiness at heart, I don’t forget that you’ve formerly proved it to be so. Well, Heaven forbid that I should think wrongfully of you if you don’t deserve it! A mystery to me you have always been, my noble lord, and in this business more than in any.’

‘I am glad to hear you say no worse. In one hour you’ll have proof of my conduct — good and bad. Can I do anything more? Say the word, and I’ll try.’

Jim reflected. ‘Baron,’ he said, ‘I am a plain man, and wish only to lead a quiet life with my wife, as a man should. You have great power over her — power to any extent, for good or otherwise. If you command her anything on earth, righteous or questionable, that she’ll do. So that, since you ask me if you can do more for me, I’ll answer this, you can promise never to see her again. I mean no harm, my lord; but your presence can do no good; you will trouble us. If I return to her, will you for ever stay away?’

‘Hayward,’ said the Baron, ‘I swear to you that I will disturb you and your wife by my presence no more. And he took Jim’s hand, and pressed it within his own upon the hilt of Jim’s sword.

In relating this incident to the present narrator Jim used to declare that, to his fancy, the ruddy light of the setting sun burned with more than earthly fire on the Baron’s face as the words were spoken; and that the ruby flash of his eye in the same light was what he never witnessed before nor since in the eye of mortal man. After this there was nothing more to do or say in that place. Jim accompanied his never-to-be-forgotten acquaintance to the carriage, closed the door after him, waved his hat to him, and from that hour he and the Baron met not again on earth.

A few words will suffice to explain the fortunes of Margery while the foregoing events were in action elsewhere. On leaving her companion Vine she had gone distractedly among the carriages, the rather to escape his observation than of any set purpose. Standing here she thought she heard her name pronounced, and turning, saw her foreign friend, whom she had supposed to be, if not dead, a thousand miles off. He beckoned, and she went close. ‘You are ill — you are wretched,’ he said, looking keenly in her face. ‘Where’s your husband?’

She told him her sad suspicion that Jim had run away from her. The Baron reflected, and inquired a few other particulars of her late life. Then he said: ‘You and I must find him. Come with me.’ At this word of command from the Baron she had entered the carriage as docilely as a child, and there she sat beside him till he chose to speak, which was not till they were some way out of the town, at the forking ways, and the Baron had discovered that Jim was certainly not, as they had supposed, making off from Margery along that particular branch of the fork that led to London.

‘To pursue him in this way is useless, I perceive,’ he said. ‘And the proper course now is that I should take you to his house. That done I will return, and bring him to you if mortal persuasion can do it.’

‘I didn’t want to go to his house without him, sir,’ said she, tremblingly.

‘Didn’t want to!’ he answered. ‘Let me remind you, Margery Hayward, that your place is in your husband’s house. Till you are there you have no right to criticize his conduct, however wild it may be. Why have you not been there before?’

‘I don’t know, sir,’ she murmured, her tears falling silently upon her hand.

‘Don’t you think you ought to be there?’

She did not answer.

‘Of course you ought.’

Still she did not speak.

The Baron sank into silence, and allowed his eye to rest on her. What thoughts were all at once engaging his mind after those moments of reproof? Margery had given herself into his hands without a remonstrance, her husband had apparently deserted her. She was absolutely in his power, and they were on the high road.

That his first impulse in inviting her to accompany him had been the legitimate one denoted by his words cannot reasonably be doubted. That his second was otherwise soon became revealed, though not at first to her, for she was too bewildered to notice where they were going. Instead of turning and taking the road to Jim’s, the Baron, as if influenced suddenly by her reluctance to return thither if Jim was playing truant, signalled to the coachman to take the branch road to the right, as her father had discerned.

They soon approached the coast near Idmouth. The carriage stopped. Margery awoke from her reverie.

‘Where are we?’ she said, looking out of the window, with a start. Before her was an inlet of the sea, and in the middle of the inlet rode a yacht, its masts repeating as if from memory the rocking they had practised in their native forest.

‘At a little sea-side nook, where my yacht lies at anchor,’ he said tentatively. ‘Now, Margery, in five minutes we can be aboard, and in half an hour we can be sailing away all the world over. Will you come?’

‘I cannot decide,’ she said, in low tones.

‘Why not?’

‘Because —’

Then on a sudden, Margery seemed to see all contingencies: she became white as a fleece, and a bewildered look came into her eyes. With clasped hands she leant on the Baron.

Baron von Xanten observed her distracted look, averted his face, and coming to a decision opened the carriage door, quickly mounted outside, and in a second or two the carriage left the shore behind, and ascended the road by which it had come.

In about an hour they reached Jim Hayward’s home. The Baron alighted, and spoke to her through the window. ‘Margery, can you forgive a lover’s bad impulse, which I swear was unpremeditated?’ he asked. ‘If you can, shake my hand.’

She did not do it, but eventually allowed him to help her out of the carriage. He seemed to feel the awkwardness keenly; and seeing it, she said, ‘Of course I forgive you, sir, for I felt for a moment as you did. Will you send my husband to me?’

‘I will, if any man can,’ said he. ‘Such penance is milder than I deserve! God bless you and give you happiness! I shall never see you again!’ He turned, entered the carriage, and was gone; and having found out Jim’s course, came up with him upon the road as described.

In due time the latter reached his lodging at his partner’s. The woman who took care of the house in Vine’s absence at once told Jim that a lady who had come in a carriage was waiting for him in his sitting-room. Jim proceeded thither with agitation, and beheld, shrinkingly ensconced in the large slippery chair, and surrounded by the brilliant articles that had so long awaited her, his long-estranged wife.

Margery’s eyes were round and fear-stricken. She essayed to speak, but Jim, strangely enough, found the readier tongue then. ‘Why did I do it, you would ask,’ he said. ‘I cannot tell. Do you forgive my deception? O Margery — you are my Margery still! But how could you trust yourself in the Baron’s hands this afternoon, without knowing him better?’

‘He said I was to come, and I went,’ she said, as well as she could for tearfulness.

‘You obeyed him blindly.’

‘I did. But perhaps I was not justified in doing it.’

‘I don’t know,’ said Jim musingly. ‘I think he’s a good man.’ Margery did not explain. And then a sunnier mood succeeded her tremblings and tears, till old Mr. Vine came into the house below, and Jim went down to declare that all was well, and sent off his partner to break the news to Margery’s father, who as yet remained unenlightened.

The dairyman bore the intelligence of his daughter’s untitled state as best he could, and punished her by not coming near her for several weeks, though at last he grumbled his forgiveness, and made up matters with Jim. The handsome Mrs. Peach vanished to Plymouth, and found another sailor, not without a reasonable complaint against Jim and Margery both that she had been unfairly used.

As for the mysterious gentleman who had exercised such an influence over their lives, he kept his word, and was a stranger to Lower Wessex thenceforward. Baron or no Baron, Englishman or foreigner, he had shown a genuine interest in Jim, and real sorrow for a certain reckless phase of his acquaintance with Margery. That he had a more tender feeling toward the young girl than he wished her or any one else to perceive there could be no doubt. That he was strongly tempted at times to adopt other than conventional courses with regard to her is also clear, particularly at that critical hour when she rolled along the high road with him in the carriage, after turning from the fancied pursuit of Jim. But at other times he schooled impassioned sentiments into fair conduct, which even erred on the side of harshness. In after years there was a report that another attempt on his life with a pistol, during one of those fits of moodiness to which he seemed constitutionally liable, had been effectual; but nobody in Silverthorn was in a position to ascertain the truth.

There he is still regarded as one who had something about him magical and unearthly. In his mystery let him remain; for a man, no less than a landscape, who awakens an interest under uncertain lights and touches of unfathomable shade, may cut but a poor figure in a garish noontide shine.

When she heard of his mournful death Margery sat in her nursing-chair, gravely thinking for nearly ten minutes, to the total neglect of her infant in the cradle. Jim, from the other side of the fire-place, said: ‘You are sorry enough for him, Margery. I am sure of that.’

‘Yes, yes,’ she murmured, ‘I am sorry.’ After a moment she added: ‘Now that he’s dead I’ll make a confession, Jim, that I have never made to a soul. If he had pressed me — which he did not — to go with him when I was in the carriage that night beside his yacht, I would have gone. And I was disappointed that he did not press me.’

‘Suppose he were to suddenly appear now, and say in a voice of command, “Margery, come with me!”’

‘I believe I should have no power to disobey,’ she returned, with a mischievous look. ‘He was like a magician to me. I think he was one. He could move me as a loadstone moves a speck of steel . . . Yet no,’ she added, hearing the infant cry, ‘he would not move me now. It would be so unfair to baby.’

‘Well,’ said Jim, with no great concern (for ‘la jalousie retrospective,’ as George Sand calls it, had nearly died out of him), ‘however he might move ‘ee, my love, he’ll never come. He swore it to me: and he was a man of his word.’

Midsummer, 1883.

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