The Romantic Adventures of a Milkmaid, by Thomas Hardy

Chapter 9

He hastened down towards the stables, and she went on as directed. It seemed as if he must have put in the horse himself, so quickly did he reappear with the phaeton on the open road. Margery silently took her seat, and the Baron seemed cut to the quick with self-reproach as he noticed the listless indifference with which she acted. There was no doubt that in her heart she had preferred obeying the apparently important mandate that morning to becoming Jim’s wife; but there was no less doubt that had the Baron left her alone she would quietly have gone to the altar.

He drove along furiously, in a cloud of dust. There was much to contemplate in that peaceful Sunday morning — the windless trees and fields, the shaking sunlight, the pause in human stir. Yet neither of them heeded, and thus they drew near to the dairy. His first expressed intention had been to go indoors with her, but this he abandoned as impolitic in the highest degree.

‘You may be soon enough,’ he said, springing down, and helping her to follow. ‘Tell the truth: say you were sent for to receive a wedding present — that it was a mistake on my part — a mistake on yours; and I think they’ll forgive . . . And, Margery, my last request to you is this: that if I send for you again, you do not come. Promise solemnly, my dear girl, that any such request shall be unheeded.’

Her lips moved, but the promise was not articulated. ‘O, sir, I cannot promise it!’ she said at last.

‘But you must; your salvation may depend on it!’ he insisted almost sternly. ‘You don’t know what I am.’

‘Then, sir, I promise,’ she replied. ‘Now leave me to myself, please, and I’ll go indoors and manage matters.’

He turned the horse and drove away, but only for a little distance. Out of sight he pulled rein suddenly. ‘Only to go back and propose it to her, and she’d come!’ he murmured.

He stood up in the phaeton, and by this means he could see over the hedge. Margery still sat listlessly in the same place; there was not a lovelier flower in the field. ‘No,’ he said; ‘no, no — never!’ He reseated himself, and the wheels sped lightly back over the soft dust to Mount Lodge.

Meanwhile Margery had not moved. If the Baron could dissimulate on the side of severity she could dissimulate on the side of calm. He did not know what had been veiled by the quiet promise to manage matters indoors. Rising at length she first turned away from the house; and, by-and-by, having apparently forgotten till then that she carried it in her hand, she opened the case, and looked at the locket. This seemed to give her courage. She turned, set her face towards the dairy in good earnest, and though her heart faltered when the gates came in sight, she kept on and drew near the door.

On the threshold she stood listening. The house was silent. Decorations were visible in the passage, and also the carefully swept and sanded path to the gate, which she was to have trodden as a bride; but the sparrows hopped over it as if it were abandoned; and all appeared to have been checked at its climacteric, like a clock stopped on the strike. Till this moment of confronting the suspended animation of the scene she had not realized the full shock of the convulsion which her disappearance must have caused. It is quite certain — apart from her own repeated assurances to that effect in later years — that in hastening off that morning to her sudden engagement, Margery had not counted the cost of such an enterprise; while a dim notion that she might get back again in time for the ceremony, if the message meant nothing serious, should also be mentioned in her favour. But, upon the whole, she had obeyed the call with an unreasoning obedience worthy of a disciple in primitive times. A conviction that the Baron’s life might depend upon her presence — for she had by this time divined the tragical event she had interrupted on the foggy morning — took from her all will to judge and consider calmly. The simple affairs of her and hers seemed nothing beside the possibility of harm to him.

A well-known step moved on the sanded floor within, and she went forward. That she saw her father’s face before her, just within the door, can hardly be said: it was rather Reproach and Rage in a human mask.

‘What! ye have dared to come back alive, hussy, to look upon the dupery you have practised on honest people! You’ve mortified us all; I don’t want to see ‘ee; I don’t want to hear ‘ee; I don’t want to know anything!’ He walked up and down the room, unable to command himself. ‘Nothing but being dead could have excused ‘ee for not meeting and marrying that man this morning; and yet you have the brazen impudence to stand there as well as ever! What be you here for?’

‘I’ve come back to marry Jim, if he wants me to,’ she said faintly. ‘And if not — perhaps so much the better. I was sent for this morning early. I thought —.’ She halted. To say that she had thought a man’s death might happen by his own hand if she did not go to him, would never do. ‘I was obliged to go,’ she said. ‘I had given my word.’

‘Why didn’t you tell us then, so that the wedding could be put off, without making fools o’ us?’

‘Because I was afraid you wouldn’t let me go, and I had made up my mind to go.’

‘To go where?’

She was silent; till she said, ‘I will tell Jim all, and why it was; and if he’s any friend of mine he’ll excuse me.’

‘Not Jim — he’s no such fool. Jim had put all ready for you, Jim had called at your house, a-dressed up in his new wedding clothes, and a-smiling like the sun; Jim had told the parson, had got the ringers in tow, and the clerk awaiting; and then — you was GONE! Then Jim turned as pale as rendlewood, and busted out, “If she don’t marry me to-day,” ‘a said, “she don’t marry me at all! No; let her look elsewhere for a husband. For tew years I’ve put up with her haughty tricks and her takings,” ‘a said. “I’ve droudged and I’ve traipsed, I’ve bought and I’ve sold, all wi’ an eye to her; I’ve suffered horseflesh,” he says — yes, them was his noble words —“but I’ll suffer it no longer. She shall go!” “Jim,” says I, “you be a man. If she’s alive, I commend ‘ee; if she’s dead, pity my old age.” “She isn’t dead,” says he; “for I’ve just heard she was seen walking off across the fields this morning, looking all of a scornful triumph.” He turned round and went, and the rest o’ the neighbours went; and here be I left to the reproach o’t.’

‘He was too hasty,’ murmured Margery. ‘For now he’s said this I can’t marry him to-morrow, as I might ha’ done; and perhaps so much the better.’

‘You can be so calm about it, can ye? Be my arrangements nothing, then, that you should break ’em up, and say off hand what wasn’t done to-day might ha’ been done to-morrow, and such flick-flack? Out o’ my sight! I won’t hear any more. I won’t speak to ‘ee any more.’

‘I’ll go away, and then you’ll be sorry!’

‘Very well, go. Sorry — not I.’

He turned and stamped his way into the cheese-room. Margery went upstairs. She too was excited now, and instead of fortifying herself in her bedroom till her father’s rage had blown over, as she had often done on lesser occasions, she packed up a bundle of articles, crept down again, and went out of the house. She had a place of refuge in these cases of necessity, and her father knew it, and was less alarmed at seeing her depart than he might otherwise have been. This place was Rook’s Gate, the house of her grandmother, who always took Margery’s part when that young woman was particularly in the wrong.

The devious way she pursued, to avoid the vicinity of Mount Lodge, was tedious, and she was already weary. But the cottage was a restful place to arrive at, for she was her own mistress there — her grandmother never coming down stairs — and Edy, the woman who lived with and attended her, being a cipher except in muscle and voice. The approach was by a straight open road, bordered by thin lank trees, all sloping away from the south-west wind-quarter, and the scene bore a strange resemblance to certain bits of Dutch landscape which have been imprinted on the world’s eye by Hobbema and his school.

Having explained to her granny that the wedding was put off; and that she had come to stay, one of Margery’s first acts was carefully to pack up the locket and case, her wedding present from the Baron. The conditions of the gift were unfulfilled, and she wished it to go back instantly. Perhaps, in the intricacies of her bosom, there lurked a greater satisfaction with the reason for returning the present than she would have felt just then with a reason for keeping it.

To send the article was difficult. In the evening she wrapped herself up, searched and found a gauze veil that had been used by her grandmother in past years for hiving swarms of bees, buried her face in it, and sallied forth with a palpitating heart till she drew near the tabernacle of her demi-god the Baron. She ventured only to the back-door, where she handed in the parcel addressed to him, and quickly came away.

Now it seems that during the day the Baron had been unable to learn the result of his attempt to return Margery in time for the event he had interrupted. Wishing, for obvious reasons, to avoid direct inquiry by messenger, and being too unwell to go far himself, he could learn no particulars. He was sitting in thought after a lonely dinner when the parcel intimating failure as brought in. The footman, whose curiosity had been excited by the mode of its arrival, peeped through the keyhole after closing the door, to learn what the packet meant. Directly the Baron had opened it he thrust out his feet vehemently from his chair, and began cursing his ruinous conduct in bringing about such a disaster, for the return of the locket denoted not only no wedding that day, but none to-morrow, or at any time.

‘I have done that innocent woman a great wrong!’ he murmured. ‘Deprived her of, perhaps, her only opportunity of becoming mistress of a happy home!’

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