The Romantic Adventures of a Milkmaid, by Thomas Hardy

Chapter 8

Notwithstanding a press of business, Jim went and did his duty in thanking the Baron. The latter saw him in his fishing-tackle room, an apartment littered with every appliance that a votary of the rod could require.

‘And when is the wedding-day to be, Hayward?’ the Baron asked, after Jim had told him that matters were settled.

‘It is not quite certain yet, my noble lord,’ said Jim cheerfully. ‘But I hope ’twill not be long after the time when God A’mighty christens the little apples.’

‘And when is that?’

‘St. Swithin’s — the middle of July. ’Tis to be some time in that month, she tells me.’

When Jim was gone the Baron seemed meditative. He went out, ascended the mount, and entered the weather-screen, where he looked at the seats, as though re-enacting in his fancy the scene of that memorable morning of fog. He turned his eyes to the angle of the shelter, round which Margery had suddenly appeared like a vision, and it was plain that he would not have minded her appearing there then. The juncture had indeed been such an impressive and critical one that she must have seemed rather a heavenly messenger than a passing milkmaid, more especially to a man like the Baron, who, despite the mystery of his origin and life, revealed himself to be a melancholy, emotional character — the Jacques of this forest and stream.

Behind the mount the ground rose yet higher, ascending to a plantation which sheltered the house. The Baron strolled up here, and bent his gaze over the distance. The valley of the Exe lay before him, with its shining river, the brooks that fed it, and the trickling springs that fed the brooks. The situation of Margery’s house was visible, though not the house itself; and the Baron gazed that way for an infinitely long time, till, remembering himself, he moved on.

Instead of returning to the house he went along the ridge till he arrived at the verge of Chillington Wood, and in the same desultory manner roamed under the trees, not pausing till he had come to Three-Walks-End, and the hollow elm hard by. He peeped in at the rift. In the soft dry layer of touch-wood that floored the hollow Margery’s tracks were still visible, as she had made them there when dressing for the ball.

‘Little Margery!’ murmured the Baron.

In a moment he thought better of this mood, and turned to go home. But behold, a form stood behind him — that of the girl whose name had been on his lips.

She was in utter confusion. ‘I— I— did not know you were here, sir!’ she began. ‘I was out for a little walk.’ She could get no further; her eyes filled with tears. That spice of wilfulness, even hardness, which characterized her in Jim’s company, magically disappeared in the presence of the Baron.

‘Never mind, never mind,’ said he, masking under a severe manner whatever he felt. ‘The meeting is awkward, and ought not to have occurred, especially if as I suppose, you are shortly to be married to James Hayward. But it cannot be helped now. You had no idea I was here, of course. Neither had I of seeing you. Remember you cannot be too careful,’ continued the Baron, in the same grave tone; ‘and I strongly request you as a friend to do your utmost to avoid meetings like this. When you saw me before I turned, why did you not go away?’

‘I did not see you, sir. I did not think of seeing you. I was walking this way, and I only looked in to see the tree.’

‘That shows you have been thinking of things you should not think of,’ returned the Baron. ‘Good morning.’

Margery could answer nothing. A browbeaten glance, almost of misery, was all she gave him. He took a slow step away from her; then turned suddenly back and, stooping, impulsively kissed her cheek, taking her as much by surprise as ever a woman was taken in her life.

Immediately after he went off with a flushed face and rapid strides, which he did not check till he was within his own boundaries.

The haymaking season now set in vigorously, and the weir-hatches were all drawn in the meads to drain off the water. The streams ran themselves dry, and there was no longer any difficulty in walking about among them. The Baron could very well witness from the elevations about his house the activity which followed these preliminaries. The white shirt-sleeves of the mowers glistened in the sun, the scythes flashed, voices echoed, snatches of song floated about, and there were glimpses of red waggon-wheels, purple gowns, and many-coloured handkerchiefs.

The Baron had been told that the haymaking was to be followed by the wedding, and had he gone down the vale to the dairy he would have had evidence to that effect. Dairyman Tucker’s house was in a whirlpool of bustle, and among other difficulties was that of turning the cheese-room into a genteel apartment for the time being, and hiding the awkwardness of having to pass through the milk-house to get to the parlour door. These household contrivances appeared to interest Margery much more than the great question of dressing for the ceremony and the ceremony itself. In all relating to that she showed an indescribable backwardness, which later on was well remembered.

‘If it were only somebody else, and I was one of the bridesmaids, I really think I should like it better!’ she murmured one afternoon.

‘Away with thee — that’s only your shyness!’ said one of the milkmaids.

It is said that about this time the Baron seemed to feel the effects of solitude strongly. Solitude revives the simple instincts of primitive man, and lonely country nooks afford rich soil for wayward emotions. Moreover, idleness waters those unconsidered impulses which a short season of turmoil would stamp out. It is difficult to speak with any exactness of the bearing of such conditions on the mind of the Baron — a man of whom so little was ever truly known — but there is no doubt that his mind ran much on Margery as an individual, without reference to her rank or quality, or to the question whether she would marry Jim Hayward that summer. She was the single lovely human thing within his present horizon, for he lived in absolute seclusion; and her image unduly affected him.

But, leaving conjecture, let me state what happened.

One Saturday evening, two or three weeks after his accidental meeting with her in the wood, he wrote the note following:-

DEAR MARGERY, —

You must not suppose that, because I spoke somewhat severely to you at our chance encounter by the hollow tree, I have any feeling against you. Far from it. Now, as ever, I have the most grateful sense of your considerate kindness to me on a momentous occasion which shall be nameless.

You solemnly promised to come and see me whenever I should send for you. Can you call for five minutes as soon as possible, and disperse those plaguy glooms from which I am so unfortunate as to suffer? If you refuse I will not answer for the consequences.

I shall be in the summer shelter of the mount to-morrow morning at half-past ten. If you come I shall be grateful. I have also something for you. Yours,

X.

In keeping with the tenor of this epistle the desponding, self-oppressed Baron ascended the mount on Sunday morning and sat down. There was nothing here to signify exactly the hour, but before the church bells had begun he heard somebody approaching at the back. The light footstep moved timidly, first to one recess, and then to another; then to the third, where he sat in the shade. Poor Margery stood before him.

She looked worn and weary, and her little shoes and the skirts of her dress were covered with dust. The weather was sultry, the sun being already high and powerful, and rain had not fallen for weeks. The Baron, who walked little, had thought nothing of the effects of this heat and drought in inducing fatigue. A distance which had been but a reasonable exercise on a foggy morning was a drag for Margery now. She was out of breath; and anxiety, even unhappiness was written on her everywhere.

He rose to his feet, and took her hand. He was vexed with himself at sight of her. ‘My dear little girl!’ he said. ‘You are tired — you should not have come.’

‘You sent for me, sir; and I was afraid you were ill; and my promise to you was sacred.’

He bent over her, looking upon her downcast face, and still holding her hand; then he dropped it, and took a pace or two backwards.

‘It was a whim, nothing more,’ he said, sadly. ‘I wanted to see my little friend, to express good wishes — and to present her with this.’ He held forward a small morocco case, and showed her how to open it, disclosing a pretty locket, set with pearls. ‘It is intended as a wedding present,’ he continued. ‘To be returned to me again if you do not marry Jim this summer — it is to be this summer, I think?’

‘It was, sir,’ she said with agitation. ‘But it is so no longer. And, therefore, I cannot take this.’

‘What do you say?’

‘It was to have been to-day; but now it cannot be.’

‘The wedding to-day — Sunday?’ he cried.

‘We fixed Sunday not to hinder much time at this busy season of the year,’ replied she.

‘And have you, then, put it off — surely not?’

‘You sent for me, and I have come,’ she answered humbly, like an obedient familiar in the employ of some great enchanter. Indeed, the Baron’s power over this innocent girl was curiously like enchantment, or mesmeric influence. It was so masterful that the sexual element was almost eliminated. It was that of Prospero over the gentle Ariel. And yet it was probably only that of the cosmopolite over the recluse, of the experienced man over the simple maid.

‘You have come — on your wedding-day! — O Margery, this is a mistake. Of course, you should not have obeyed me, since, though I thought your wedding would be soon, I did not know it was to-day.’

‘I promised you, sir; and I would rather keep my promise to you than be married to Jim.’

‘That must not be — the feeling is wrong!’ he murmured, looking at the distant hills. ‘There seems to be a fate in all this; I get out of the frying-pan into the fire. What a recompense to you for your goodness! The fact is, I was out of health and out of spirits, so I— but no more of that. Now instantly to repair this tremendous blunder that we have made — that’s the question.’

After a pause, he went on hurriedly, ‘Walk down the hill; get into the road. By that time I shall be there with a phaeton. We may get back in time. What time is it now? If not, no doubt the wedding can be to-morrow; so all will come right again. Don’t cry, my dear girl. Keep the locket, of course — you’ll marry Jim.’

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