The Romantic Adventures of a Milkmaid, by Thomas Hardy

Chapter 5

The bewildered Margery was led by the Baron up the steps to the interior of the house, whence the sounds of music and dancing were already proceeding. The tones were strange. At every fourth beat a deep and mighty note throbbed through the air, reaching Margery’s soul with all the force of a blow.

‘What is that powerful tune, sir — I have never heard anything like it?’ she said.

‘The Drum Polka,’ answered the Baron. ‘The strange dance I spoke of and that we practised — introduced from my country and other parts of the continent.’

Her surprise was not lessened when, at the entrance to the ballroom, she heard the names of her conductor and herself announced as ‘Mr. and Miss Brown.’

However, nobody seemed to take any notice of the announcement, the room beyond being in a perfect turmoil of gaiety, and Margery’s consternation at sailing under false colours subsided. At the same moment she observed awaiting them a handsome, dark-haired, rather petite lady in cream-coloured satin. ‘Who is she?’ asked Margery of the Baron.

‘She is the lady of the mansion,’ he whispered. ‘She is the wife of a peer of the realm, the daughter of a marquis, has five Christian names; and hardly ever speaks to commoners, except for political purposes.’

‘How divine — what joy to be here!’ murmured Margery, as she contemplated the diamonds that flashed from the head of her ladyship, who was just inside the ball-room door, in front of a little gilded chair, upon which she sat in the intervals between one arrival and another. She had come down from London at great inconvenience to herself; openly to promote this entertainment.

As Mr. and Miss Brown expressed absolutely no meaning to Lady Toneborough (for there were three Browns already present in this rather mixed assembly), and as there was possibly a slight awkwardness in poor Margery’s manner, Lady Toneborough touched their hands lightly with the tips of her long gloves, said, ‘How d’ye do,’ and turned round for more comers.

‘Ah, if she only knew we were a rich Baron and his friend, and not Mr. and Miss Brown at all, she wouldn’t receive us like that, would she?’ whispered Margery confidentially.

‘Indeed, she wouldn’t!’ drily said the Baron. ‘Now let us drop into the dance at once; some of the people here, you see, dance much worse than you.’

Almost before she was aware she had obeyed his mysterious influence, by giving him one hand, placing the other upon his shoulder, and swinging with him round the room to the steps she had learnt on the sward.

At the first gaze the apartment had seemed to her to be floored with black ice; the figures of the dancers appearing upon it upside down. At last she realized that it was highly-polished oak, but she was none the less afraid to move.

‘I am afraid of falling down,’ she said.

‘Lean on me; you will soon get used to it,’ he replied. ‘You have no nails in your shoes now, dear.’

His words, like all his words to her, were quite true. She found it amazingly easy in a brief space of time. The floor, far from hindering her, was a positive assistance to one of her natural agility and litheness. Moreover, her marvellous dress of twelve flounces inspired her as nothing else could have done. Externally a new creature, she was prompted to new deeds. To feel as well-dressed as the other women around her is to set any woman at her ease, whencesoever she may have come: to feel much better dressed is to add radiance to that ease.

Her prophet’s statement on the popularity of the polka at this juncture was amply borne out. It was among the first seasons of its general adoption in country houses; the enthusiasm it excited to-night was beyond description, and scarcely credible to the youth of the present day. A new motive power had been introduced into the world of poesy — the polka, as a counterpoise to the new motive power that had been introduced into the world of prose — steam.

Twenty finished musicians sat in the music gallery at the end, with romantic mop-heads of raven hair, under which their faces and eyes shone like fire under coals.

The nature and object of the ball had led to its being very inclusive. Every rank was there, from the peer to the smallest yeoman, and Margery got on exceedingly well, particularly when the recuperative powers of supper had banished the fatigue of her long drive.

Sometimes she heard people saying, ‘Who are they? — brother and sister — father and daughter? And never dancing except with each other — how odd?’ But of this she took no notice.

When not dancing the watchful Baron took her through the drawing-rooms and picture-galleries adjoining, which to-night were thrown open like the rest of the house; and there, ensconcing her in some curtained nook, he drew her attention to scrap-books, prints, and albums, and left her to amuse herself with turning them over till the dance in which she was practised should again be called. Margery would much have preferred to roam about during these intervals; but the words of the Baron were law, and as he commanded so she acted. In such alternations the evening winged away; till at last came the gloomy words, ‘Margery, our time is up.’

‘One more — only one!’ she coaxed, for the longer they stayed the more freely and gaily moved the dance. This entreaty he granted; but on her asking for yet another, he was inexorable. ‘No,’ he said. ‘We have a long way to go.’

Then she bade adieu to the wondrous scene, looking over her shoulder as they withdrew from the hall; and in a few minutes she was cloaked and in the carriage. The Baron mounted to his seat on the box, where she saw him light a cigar; they plunged under the trees, and she leant back, and gave herself up to contemplate the images that filled her brain. The natural result followed: she fell asleep.

She did not awake till they stopped to change horses; when she saw against the stars the Baron sitting as erect as ever. ‘He watches like the Angel Gabriel, when all the world is asleep!’ she thought.

With the resumption of motion she slept again, and knew no more till he touched her hand and said, ‘Our journey is done — we are in Chillington Wood.’

It was almost daylight. Margery scarcely knew herself to be awake till she was out of the carriage and standing beside the Baron, who, having told the coachman to drive on to a certain point indicated, turned to her.

‘Now,’ he said, smiling, ‘run across to the hollow tree; you know where it is. I’ll wait as before, while you perform the reverse operation to that you did last night.’ She took no heed of the path now, nor regarded whether her pretty slippers became scratched by the brambles or no. A walk of a few steps brought her to the particular tree which she had left about nine hours earlier. It was still gloomy at this spot, the morning not being clear.

She entered the trunk, dislodged the box containing her old clothing, pulled off the satin shoes, and gloves, dress, and in ten minutes emerged in the cotton and shawl of shepherd’s plaid.

Baron was not far off. ‘Now you look the milkmaid again,’ he said, coming towards her. ‘Where is the finery?’

‘Packed in the box, sir, as I found it.’ She spoke with more humility now. The difference between them was greater than it had been at the ball.

‘Good,’ he said. ‘I must just dispose of it; and then away we go.’

He went back to the tree, Margery following at a little distance. Bringing forth the box, he pulled out the dress as carelessly as if it had been rags. But this was not all. He gathered a few dry sticks, crushed the lovely garment into a loose billowy heap, threw the gloves, fan, and shoes on the top, then struck a light and ruthlessly set fire to the whole.

Margery was agonized. She ran forward; she implored and entreated. ‘Please, sir — do spare it — do! My lovely dress — my-dear, dear slippers — my fan — it is cruel! Don’t burn them, please!’

‘Nonsense. We shall have no further use for them if we live a hundred years.’

‘But spare a bit of it — one little piece, sir — a scrap of the lace — one bow of the ribbon — the lovely fan — just something!’

But he was as immoveable as Rhadamanthus. ‘No,’ he said, with a stern gaze of his aristocratic eye. ‘It is of no use for you to speak like that. The things are my property. I undertook to gratify you in what you might desire because you had saved my life. To go to a ball, you said. You might much more wisely have said anything else, but no; you said, to go to a ball. Very well — I have taken you to a ball. I have brought you back. The clothes were only the means, and I dispose of them my own way. Have I not a right to?’

‘Yes, sir,’ she said meekly.

He gave the fire a stir, and lace and ribbons, and the twelve flounces, and the embroidery, and all the rest crackled and disappeared. He then put in her hands the butter basket she had brought to take on to her grandmother’s, and accompanied her to the edge of the wood, where it merged in the undulating open country in which her granddame dwelt.

‘Now, Margery,’ he said, ‘here we part. I have performed my contract — at some awkwardness, if I was recognized. But never mind that. How do you feel — sleepy?’

‘Not at all, sir,’ she said.

‘That long nap refreshed you, eh? Now you must make me a promise. That if I require your presence at any time, you will come to me . . . I am a man of more than one mood,’ he went on with sudden solemnity; ‘and I may have desperate need of you again, to deliver me from that darkness as of Death which sometimes encompasses me. Promise it, Margery — promise it; that, no matter what stands in the way, you will come to me if I require you.’

‘I would have if you had not burnt my pretty clothes!’ she pouted.

‘Ah — ungrateful!’

‘Indeed, then, I will promise, sir,’ she said from her heart. ‘Wherever I am, if I have bodily strength I will come to you.’

He pressed her hand. ‘It is a solemn promise,’ he replied. ‘Now I must go, for you know your way.’

‘I shall hardly believe that it has not been all a dream!’ she said, with a childish instinct to cry at his withdrawal. ‘There will be nothing left of last night — nothing of my dress, nothing of my pleasure, nothing of the place!’

‘You shall remember it in this way,’ said he. ‘We’ll cut our initials on this tree as a memorial, so that whenever you walk this path you will see them.’

Then with a knife he inscribed on the smooth bark of a beech tree the letters M.T., and underneath a large X.

‘What, have you no Christian name, sir?’ she said.

‘Yes, but I don’t use it. Now, good-bye, my little friend. — What will you do with yourself to-day, when you are gone from me?’ he lingered to ask.

‘Oh — I shall go to my granny’s,’ she replied with some gloom; ‘and have breakfast, and dinner, and tea with her, I suppose; and in the evening I shall go home to Silverthorn Dairy, and perhaps Jim will come to meet me, and all will be the same as usual.’

‘Who is Jim?’

‘O, he’s nobody — only the young man I’ve got to marry some day.’

‘What! — you engaged to be married? — Why didn’t you tell me this before?’

‘I— I don’t know, sir.’

‘What is the young man’s name?’

‘James Hayward.’

‘What is he?’

‘A master lime-burner.’

‘Engaged to a master lime-burner, and not a word of this to me! Margery, Margery! when shall a straightforward one of your sex be found! Subtle even in your simplicity! What mischief have you caused me to do, through not telling me this? I wouldn’t have so endangered anybody’s happiness for a thousand pounds. Wicked girl that you were; why didn’t you tell me?’

‘I thought I’d better not!’ said Margery, beginning to be frightened.

‘But don’t you see and understand that if you are already the property of a young man, and he were to find out this night’s excursion, he may be angry with you and part from you for ever? With him already in the field I had no right to take you at all; he undoubtedly ought to have taken you; which really might have been arranged, if you had not deceived me by saying you had nobody.’

Margery’s face wore that aspect of woe which comes from the repentant consciousness of having been guilty of an enormity. ‘But he wasn’t good enough to take me, sir!’ she said, almost crying; ‘and he isn’t absolutely my master until I have married him, is he?’

‘That’s a subject I cannot go into. However, we must alter our tactics. Instead of advising you, as I did at first, to tell of this experience to your friends, I must now impress on you that it will be best to keep a silent tongue on the matter — perhaps for ever and ever. It may come right some day, and you may be able to say “All’s well that ends well.” Now, good morning, my friend. Think of Jim, and forget me.’

‘Ah, perhaps I can’t do that,’ she said, with a tear in her eye, and a full throat.

‘Well — do your best. I can say no more.’

He turned and retreated into the wood, and Margery, sighing, went on her way.

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