The Romantic Adventures of a Milkmaid, by Thomas Hardy

Chapter 6

Between six and seven o’clock in the evening of the same day a young man descended the hills into the valley of the Exe, at a point about midway between Silverthorn and the residence of Margery’s grandmother, four miles to the east.

He was a thoroughbred son of the country, as far removed from what is known as the provincial, as the latter is from the out-and-out gentleman of culture. His trousers and waistcoat were of fustian, almost white, but he wore a jacket of old-fashioned blue West-of-England cloth, so well preserved that evidently the article was relegated to a box whenever its owner engaged in such active occupations as he usually pursued. His complexion was fair, almost florid, and he had scarcely any beard.

A novel attraction about this young man, which a glancing stranger would know nothing of, was a rare and curious freshness of atmosphere that appertained to him, to his clothes, to all his belongings, even to the room in which he had been sitting. It might almost have been said that by adding him and his implements to an over-crowded apartment you made it healthful. This resulted from his trade. He was a lime-burner; he handled lime daily; and in return the lime rendered him an incarnation of salubrity. His hair was dry, fair, and frizzled, the latter possibly by the operation of the same caustic agent. He carried as a walking-stick a green sapling, whose growth had been contorted to a corkscrew pattern by a twining honeysuckle.

As he descended to the level ground of the water-meadows he cast his glance westward, with a frequency that revealed him to be in search of some object in the distance. It was rather difficult to do this, the low sunlight dazzling his eyes by glancing from the river away there, and from the ‘carriers’ (as they were called) in his path — narrow artificial brooks for conducting the water over the grass. His course was something of a zigzag from the necessity of finding points in these carriers convenient for jumping. Thus peering and leaping and winding, he drew near the Exe, the central river of the miles-long mead.

A moving spot became visible to him in the direction of his scrutiny, mixed up with the rays of the same river. The spot got nearer, and revealed itself to be a slight thing of pink cotton and shepherd’s plaid, which pursued a path on the brink of the stream. The young man so shaped his trackless course as to impinge on the path a little ahead of this coloured form, and when he drew near her he smiled and reddened. The girl smiled back to him; but her smile had not the life in it that the young man’s had shown.

‘My dear Margery — here I am!’ he said gladly in an undertone, as with a last leap he crossed the last intervening carrier, and stood at her side.

‘You’ve come all the way from the kiln, on purpose to meet me, and you shouldn’t have done it,’ she reproachfully returned.

‘We finished there at four, so it was no trouble; and if it had been — why, I should ha’ come.’

A small sigh was the response.

‘What, you are not even so glad to see me as you would be to see your dog or cat?’ he continued. ‘Come, Mis’ess Margery, this is rather hard. But, by George, how tired you dew look! Why, if you’d been up all night your eyes couldn’t be more like tea-saucers. You’ve walked tew far, that’s what it is. The weather is getting warm now, and the air of these low-lying meads is not strengthening in summer. I wish you lived up on higher ground with me, beside the kiln. You’d get as strong as a hoss! Well, there; all that will come in time.’

Instead of saying yes, the fair maid repressed another sigh.

‘What, won’t it, then?’ he said.

‘I suppose so,’ she answered. ‘If it is to be, it is.’

‘Well said — very well said, my dear.’

‘And if it isn’t to be it isn’t.’

‘What? Who’s been putting that into your head? Your grumpy granny, I suppose. However, how is she? Margery, I have been thinking to-day — in fact, I was thinking it yesterday and all the week — that really we might settle our little business this summer.’

‘This summer?’ she repeated, with some dismay. ‘But the partnership? Remember it was not to be till after that was completed.’

‘There I have you!’ said he, taking the liberty to pat her shoulder, and the further liberty of advancing his hand behind it to the other. ‘The partnership is settled. ’Tis “Vine and Hayward, lime-burners,” now, and “Richard Vine” no longer. Yes, Cousin Richard has settled it so, for a time at least, and ’tis to be painted on the carts this week — blue letters — yaller ground. I’ll boss one of ’em, and drive en round to your door as soon as the paint is dry, to show ‘ee how it looks?’

‘Oh, I am sure you needn’t take that trouble, Jim; I can see it quite well enough in my mind,’ replied the young girl — not without a flitting accent of superiority.

‘Hullo,’ said Jim, taking her by the shoulders, and looking at her hard. ‘What dew that bit of incivility mean? Now, Margery, let’s sit down here, and have this cleared.’ He rapped with his stick upon the rail of a little bridge they were crossing, and seated himself firmly, leaving a place for her.

‘But I want to get home-along,’ dear Jim, she coaxed.

‘Fidgets. Sit down, there’s a dear. I want a straightforward answer, if you please. In what month, and on what day of the month, will you marry me?’

‘O, Jim,’ she said, sitting gingerly on the edge, ‘that’s too plain-spoken for you yet. Before I look at it in that business light I should have to — to —’

‘But your father has settled it long ago, and you said it should be as soon as I became a partner. So, dear, you must not mind a plain man wanting a plain answer. Come, name your time.’

She did not reply at once. What thoughts were passing through her brain during the interval? Not images raised by his words, but whirling figures of men and women in red and white and blue, reflected from a glassy floor, in movements timed by the thrilling beats of the Drum Polka. At last she said slowly, ‘Jim, you don’t know the world, and what a woman’s wants can be.’

‘But I can make you comfortable. I am in lodgings as yet, but I can have a house for the asking; and as to furniture, you shall choose of the best for yourself — the very best.’

‘The best! Far are you from knowing what that is!’ said the little woman. ‘There be ornaments such as you never dream of; work-tables that would set you in amaze; silver candlesticks, tea and coffee pots that would dazzle your eyes; tea-cups, and saucers, gilded all over with guinea-gold; heavy velvet curtains, gold clocks, pictures, and looking-glasses beyond your very dreams. So don’t say I shall have the best.’

‘H’m!’ said Jim gloomily; and fell into reflection. ‘Where did you get those high notions from, Margery?’ he presently inquired. ‘I’ll swear you hadn’t got ’em a week ago.’ She did not answer, and he added, ‘YEW don’t expect to have such things, I hope; deserve them as you may?’

‘I was not exactly speaking of what I wanted,’ she said severely. ‘I said, things a woman COULD want. And since you wish to know what I CAN want to quite satisfy me, I assure you I can want those!’

‘You are a pink-and-white conundrum, Margery,’ he said; ‘and I give you up for to-night. Anybody would think the devil had showed you all the kingdoms of the world since I saw you last!’

She reddened. ‘Perhaps he has!’ she murmured; then arose, he following her; and they soon reached Margery’s home, approaching it from the lower or meadow side — the opposite to that of the garden top, where she had met the Baron.

‘You’ll come in, won’t you, Jim?’ she said, with more ceremony than heartiness.

‘No — I think not to-night,’ he answered. ‘I’ll consider what you’ve said.’

‘You are very good, Jim,’ she returned lightly. ‘Good-bye.’

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