The Hand of Ethelberta, by Thomas Hardy

2

Christopher’s House — Sandbourne Town — Sandbourne Moor

During the wet autumn of the same year, the postman passed one morning as usual into a plain street that ran through the less fashionable portion of Sandbourne, a modern coast town and watering-place not many miles from the ancient Anglebury. He knocked at the door of a flat-faced brick house, and it was opened by a slight, thoughtful young man, with his hat on, just then coming out. The postman put into his hands a book packet, addressed, ‘Christopher Julian, Esq.’

Christopher took the package upstairs, opened it with curiosity, and discovered within a green volume of poems, by an anonymous writer, the title-page bearing the inscription, ‘Metres by E.’ The book was new, though it was cut, and it appeared to have been looked into. The young man, after turning it over and wondering where it came from, laid it on the table and went his way, being in haste to fulfil his engagements for the day.

In the evening, on returning home from his occupations, he sat himself down cosily to read the newly-arrived volume. The winds of this uncertain season were snarling in the chimneys, and drops of rain spat themselves into the fire, revealing plainly that the young man’s room was not far enough from the top of the house to admit of a twist in the flue, and revealing darkly a little more, if that social rule-of-three inverse, the higher in lodgings the lower in pocket, were applicable here. However, the aspect of the room, though homely, was cheerful, a somewhat contradictory group of furniture suggesting that the collection consisted of waifs and strays from a former home, the grimy faces of the old articles exercising a curious and subduing effect on the bright faces of the new. An oval mirror of rococo workmanship, and a heavy cabinet-piano with a cornice like that of an Egyptian temple, adjoined a harmonium of yesterday, and a harp that was almost as new. Printed music of the last century, and manuscript music of the previous evening, lay there in such quantity as to endanger the tidiness of a retreat which was indeed only saved from a chronic state of litter by a pair of hands that sometimes played, with the lightness of breezes, about the sewing-machine standing in a remote corner — if any corner could be called remote in a room so small.

Fire lights and shades from the shaking flames struck in a butterfly flutter on the underparts of the mantelshelf, and upon the reader’s cheek as he sat. Presently, and all at once, a much greater intentness pervaded his face: he turned back again, and read anew the subject that had arrested his eyes. He was a man whose countenance varied with his mood, though it kept somewhat in the rear of that mood. He looked sad when he felt almost serene, and only serene when he felt quite cheerful. It is a habit people acquire who have had repressing experiences.

A faint smile and flush now lightened his face, and jumping up he opened the door and exclaimed, ‘Faith! will you come here for a moment?’

A prompt step was heard on the stairs, and the young person addressed as Faith entered the room. She was small in figure, and bore less in the form of her features than in their shades when changing from expression to expression the evidence that she was his sister.

‘Faith — I want your opinion. But, stop, read this first.’ He laid his finger upon a page in the book, and placed it in her hand.

The girl drew from her pocket a little green-leather sheath, worn at the edges to whity-brown, and out of that a pair of spectacles, unconsciously looking round the room for a moment as she did so, as if to ensure that no stranger saw her in the act of using them. Here a weakness was uncovered at once; it was a small, pretty, and natural one; indeed, as weaknesses go in the great world, it might almost have been called a commendable trait. She then began to read, without sitting down.

These ‘Metres by E.’ composed a collection of soft and marvellously musical rhymes, of a nature known as the vers de societe. The lines presented a series of playful defences of the supposed strategy of womankind in fascination, courtship, and marriage — the whole teeming with ideas bright as mirrors and just as unsubstantial, yet forming a brilliant argument to justify the ways of girls to men. The pervading characteristic of the mass was the means of forcing into notice, by strangeness of contrast, the single mournful poem that the book contained. It was placed at the very end, and under the title of ‘Cancelled Words,’ formed a whimsical and rather affecting love-lament, somewhat in the tone of many of Sir Thomas Wyatt’s poems. This was the piece which had arrested Christopher’s attention, and had been pointed out by him to his sister Faith.

‘It is very touching,’ she said, looking up.

‘What do you think I suspect about it — that the poem is addressed to me! Do you remember, when father was alive and we were at Solentsea that season, about a governess who came there with a Sir Ralph Petherwin and his wife, people with a sickly little daughter and a grown-up son?’

‘I never saw any of them. I think I remember your knowing something about a young man of that name.’

‘Yes, that was the family. Well, the governess there was a very attractive woman, and somehow or other I got more interested in her than I ought to have done (this is necessary to the history), and we used to meet in romantic places — and — and that kind of thing, you know. The end of it was, she jilted me and married the son.’

‘You were anxious to get away from Solentsea.’

‘Was I? Then that was chiefly the reason. Well, I decided to think no more of her, and I was helped to do it by the troubles that came upon us shortly afterwards; it is a blessed arrangement that one does not feel a sentimental grief at all when additional grief comes in the shape of practical misfortune. However, on the first afternoon of the little holiday I took for my walking tour last summer, I came to Anglebury, and stayed about the neighbourhood for a day or two to see what it was like, thinking we might settle there if this place failed us. The next evening I left, and walked across the heath to Flychett — that’s a village about five miles further on — so as to be that distance on my way for next morning; and while I was crossing the heath there I met this very woman. We talked a little, because we couldn’t help it — you may imagine the kind of talk it was — and parted as coolly as we had met. Now this strange book comes to me; and I have a strong conviction that she is the writer of it, for that poem sketches a similar scene — or rather suggests it; and the tone generally seems the kind of thing she would write — not that she was a sad woman, either.’

‘She seems to be a warm-hearted, impulsive woman, to judge from these tender verses.’

‘People who print very warm words have sometimes very cold manners. I wonder if it is really her writing, and if she has sent it to me!’

‘Would it not be a singular thing for a married woman to do? Though of course’—(she removed her spectacles as if they hindered her from thinking, and hid them under the timepiece till she should go on reading)—‘of course poets have morals and manners of their own, and custom is no argument with them. I am sure I would not have sent it to a man for the world!’

‘I do not see any absolute harm in her sending it. Perhaps she thinks that, since it is all over, we may as well die friends.’

‘If I were her husband I should have doubts about the dying. And “all over” may not be so plain to other people as it is to you.’

‘Perhaps not. And when a man checks all a woman’s finer sentiments towards him by marrying her, it is only natural that it should find a vent somewhere. However, she probably does not know of my downfall since father’s death. I hardly think she would have cared to do it had she known that. (I am assuming that it is Ethelberta — Mrs. Petherwin — who sends it: of course I am not sure.) We must remember that when I knew her I was a gentleman at ease, who had not the least notion that I should have to work for a living, and not only so, but should have first to invent a profession to work at out of my old tastes.’

‘Kit, you have made two mistakes in your thoughts of that lady. Even though I don’t know her, I can show you that. Now I’ll tell you! the first is in thinking that a married lady would send the book with that poem in it without at any rate a slight doubt as to its propriety: the second is in supposing that, had she wished to do it, she would have given the thing up because of our misfortunes. With a true woman the second reason would have had no effect had she once got over the first. I’m a woman, and that’s why I know.’

Christopher said nothing, and turned over the poems.

* * * *

He lived by teaching music, and, in comparison with starving, thrived; though the wealthy might possibly have said that in comparison with thriving he starved. During this night he hummed airs in bed, thought he would do for the ballad of the fair poetess what other musicians had done for the ballads of other fair poetesses, and dreamed that she smiled on him as her prototype Sappho smiled on Phaon.

The next morning before starting on his rounds a new circumstance induced him to direct his steps to the bookseller’s, and ask a question. He had found on examining the wrapper of the volume that it was posted in his own town.

‘No copy of the book has been sold by me,’ the bookseller’s voice replied from far up the Alpine height of the shop-ladder, where he stood dusting stale volumes, as was his habit of a morning before customers came. ‘I have never heard of it — probably never shall;’ and he shook out the duster, so as to hit the delicate mean between stifling Christopher and not stifling him.

‘Surely you don’t live by your shop?’ said Christopher, drawing back.

The bookseller’s eyes rested on the speaker’s; his face changed; he came down and placed his hand on the lapel of Christopher’s coat. ‘Sir,’ he said, ‘country bookselling is a miserable, impoverishing, exasperating thing in these days. Can you understand the rest?’

‘I can; I forgive a starving man anything,’ said Christopher.

‘You go a long way very suddenly,’ said the book seller. ‘Half as much pity would have seemed better. However, wait a moment.’ He looked into a list of new books, and added: ‘The work you allude to was only published last week; though, mind you, if it had been published last century I might not have sold a copy.’

Although his time was precious, Christopher had now become so interested in the circumstance that the unseen sender was somebody breathing his own atmosphere, possibly the very writer herself — the book being too new to be known — that he again passed through the blue shadow of the spire which stretched across the street today, and went towards the post-office, animated by a bright intention — to ask the postmaster if he knew the handwriting in which the packet was addressed.

Now the postmaster was an acquaintance of Christopher’s, but, as regarded putting that question to him, there was a difficulty. Everything turned upon whether the postmaster at the moment of asking would be in his under-government manner, or in the manner with which mere nature had endowed him. In the latter case his reply would be all that could be wished; in the former, a man who had sunk in society might as well put his tongue into a mousetrap as make an inquiry so obviously outside the pale of legality as was this.

So he postponed his business for the present, and refrained from entering till he passed by after dinner, when pleasant malt liquor, of that capacity for cheering which is expressed by four large letter X’s marching in a row, had refilled the globular trunk of the postmaster and neutralized some of the effects of officiality. The time was well chosen, but the inquiry threatened to prove fruitless: the postmaster had never, to his knowledge, seen the writing before. Christopher was turning away when a clerk in the background looked up and stated that some young lady had brought a packet with such an address upon it into the office two days earlier to get it stamped.

‘Do you know her?’ said Christopher.

‘I have seen her about the neighbourhood. She goes by every morning; I think she comes into the town from beyond the common, and returns again between four and five in the afternoon.’

‘What does she wear?’

‘A white wool jacket with zigzags of black braid.’

Christopher left the post-office and went his way. Among his other pupils there were two who lived at some distance from Sandbourne — one of them in the direction indicated as that habitually taken by the young person; and in the afternoon, as he returned homeward, Christopher loitered and looked around. At first he could see nobody; but when about a mile from the outskirts of the town he discerned a light spot ahead of him, which actually turned out to be the jacket alluded to. In due time he met the wearer face to face; she was not Ethelberta Petherwin — quite a different sort of individual. He had long made up his mind that this would be the case, yet he was in some indescribable way disappointed.

Of the two classes into which gentle young women naturally divide, those who grow red at their weddings, and those who grow pale, the present one belonged to the former class. She was an April-natured, pink-cheeked girl, with eyes that would have made any jeweller in England think of his trade — one who evidently took her day in the daytime, frequently caught the early worm, and had little to do with yawns or candlelight. She came and passed him; he fancied that her countenance changed. But one may fancy anything, and the pair receded each from each without turning their heads. He could not speak to her, plain and simple as she seemed.

It is rarely that a man who can be entered and made to throb by the channel of his ears is not open to a similar attack through the channel of his eyes — for many doors will admit to one mansion — allowance being made for the readier capacity of chosen and practised organs. Hence the beauties, concords, and eloquences of the female form were never without their effect upon Christopher, a born musician, artist, poet, seer, mouthpiece — whichever a translator of Nature’s oracles into simple speech may be called. The young girl who had gone by was fresh and pleasant; moreover, she was a sort of mysterious link between himself and the past, which these things were vividly reviving in him.

The following week Christopher met her again. She had not much dignity, he had not much reserve, and the sudden resolution to have a holiday which sometimes impels a plump heart to rise up against a brain that overweights it was not to be resisted. He just lifted his hat, and put the only question he could think of as a beginning: ‘Have I the pleasure of addressing the author of a book of very melodious poems that was sent me the other day?’

The girl’s forefinger twirled rapidly the loop of braid that it had previously been twirling slowly, and drawing in her breath, she said, ‘No, sir.’

‘The sender, then?’

‘Yes.’

She somehow presented herself as so insignificant by the combined effect of the manner and the words that Christopher lowered his method of address to her level at once. ‘Ah,’ he said, ‘such an atmosphere as the writer of “Metres by E.” seems to breathe would soon spoil cheeks that are fresh and round as lady-apples — eh, little girl? But are you disposed to tell me that writer’s name?’

By applying a general idea to a particular case a person with the best of intentions may find himself immediately landed in a quandary. In saying to the country girl before him what would have suited the mass of country lasses well enough, Christopher had offended her beyond the cure of compliment.

‘I am not disposed to tell the writer’s name,’ she replied, with a dudgeon that was very great for one whose whole stock of it was a trifle. And she passed on and left him standing alone.

Thus further conversation was checked; but, through having rearranged the hours of his country lessons, Christopher met her the next Wednesday, and the next Friday, and throughout the following week — no further words passing between them. For a while she went by very demurely, apparently mindful of his offence. But effrontery is not proved to be part of a man’s nature till he has been guilty of a second act: the best of men may commit a first through accident or ignorance — may even be betrayed into it by over-zeal for experiment. Some such conclusion may or may not have been arrived at by the girl with the lady-apple cheeks; at any rate, after the lapse of another week a new spectacle presented itself; her redness deepened whenever Christopher passed her by, and embarrassment pervaded her from the lowest stitch to the tip of her feather. She had little chance of escaping him by diverging from the road, for a figure could be seen across the open ground to the distance of half a mile on either side. One day as he drew near as usual, she met him as women meet a cloud of dust — she turned and looked backwards till he had passed.

This would have been disconcerting but for one reason: Christopher was ceasing to notice her. He was a man who often, when walking abroad, and looking as it were at the scene before his eyes, discerned successes and failures, friends and relations, episodes of childhood, wedding feasts and funerals, the landscape suffering greatly by these visions, until it became no more than the patterned wall-tints about the paintings in a gallery; something necessary to the tone, yet not regarded. Nothing but a special concentration of himself on externals could interrupt this habit, and now that her appearance along the way had changed from a chance to a custom he began to lapse again into the old trick. He gazed once or twice at her form without seeing it: he did not notice that she trembled.

He sometimes read as he walked, and book in hand he frequently approached her now. This went on till six weeks had passed from the time of their first encounter. Latterly might have been once or twice heard, when he had moved out of earshot, a sound like a small gasping sigh; but no arrangements were disturbed, and Christopher continued to keep down his eyes as persistently as a saint in a church window.

The last day of his engagement had arrived, and with it the last of his walks that way. On his final return he carried in his hand a bunch of flowers which had been presented to him at the country-house where his lessons were given. He was taking them home to his sister Faith, who prized the lingering blossoms of the seeding season. Soon appeared as usual his fellow-traveller; whereupon Christopher looked down upon his nosegay. ‘Sweet simple girl,’ he thought, ‘I’ll endeavour to make peace with her by means of these flowers before we part for good.’

When she came up he held them out to her and said, ‘Will you allow me to present you with these?’

The bright colours of the nosegay instantly attracted the girl’s hand — perhaps before there had been time for thought to thoroughly construe the position; for it happened that when her arm was stretched into the air she steadied it quickly, and stood with the pose of a statue — rigid with uncertainty. But it was too late to refuse: Christopher had put the nosegay within her fingers. Whatever pleasant expression of thanks may have appeared in her eyes fell only on the bunch of flowers, for during the whole transaction they reached to no higher level than that. To say that he was coming no more seemed scarcely necessary under the circumstances, and wishing her ‘Good afternoon’ very heartily, he passed on.

He had learnt by this time her occupation, which was that of pupil-teacher at one of the schools in the town, whither she walked daily from a village near. If he had not been poor and the little teacher humble, Christopher might possibly have been tempted to inquire more briskly about her, and who knows how such a pursuit might have ended? But hard externals rule volatile sentiment, and under these untoward influences the girl and the book and the truth about its author were matters upon which he could not afford to expend much time. All Christopher did was to think now and then of the pretty innocent face and round deep eyes, not once wondering if the mind which enlivened them ever thought of him.

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