Whoever had perceived the yeoman standing on Squire Everard’s lawn in the dusk of that October evening fifty years ago, might have said at first sight that he was loitering there from idle curiosity. For a large five-light window of the manor-house in front of him was unshuttered and uncurtained, so that the illuminated room within could be scanned almost to its four corners. Obviously nobody was ever expected to be in this part of the grounds after nightfall.
The apartment thus swept by an eye from without was occupied by two persons; they were sitting over dessert, the tablecloth having been removed in the old-fashioned way. The fruits were local, consisting of apples, pears, nuts, and such other products of the summer as might be presumed to grow on the estate. There was strong ale and rum on the table, and but little wine. Moreover, the appointments of the dining-room were simple and homely even for the date, betokening a countrified household of the smaller gentry, without much wealth or ambition — formerly a numerous class, but now in great part ousted by the territorial landlords.
One of the two sitters was a young lady in white muslin, who listened somewhat impatiently to the remarks of her companion, an elderly, rubicund personage, whom the merest stranger could have pronounced to be her father. The watcher evinced no signs of moving, and it became evident that affairs were not so simple as they first had seemed. The tall farmer was in fact no accidental spectator, and he stood by premeditation close to the trunk of a tree, so that had any traveller passed along the road without the park gate, or even round the lawn to the door, that person would scarce have noticed the other, notwithstanding that the gate was quite near at hand, and the park little larger than a paddock. There was still light enough in the western heaven to brighten faintly one side of the man’s face, and to show against the trunk of the tree behind the admirable cut of his profile; also to reveal that the front of the manor-house, small though it seemed, was solidly built of stone in that never-to-be-surpassed style for the English country residence — the mullioned and transomed Elizabethan.
The lawn, although neglected, was still as level as a bowling-green — which indeed it might once have served for; and the blades of grass before the window were raked by the candle-shine, which stretched over them so far as to touch the yeoman’s face in front.
Within the dining-room there were also, with one of the twain, the same signs of a hidden purpose that marked the farmer. The young lady’s mind was straying as clearly into the shadows as that of the loiterer was fixed upon the room — nay, it could be said that she was quite conscious of his presence outside. Impatience caused her foot to beat silently on the carpet, and she more than once rose to leave the table. This proceeding was checked by her father, who would put his hand upon her shoulder and unceremoniously press her down into her chair, till he should have concluded his observations. Her replies were brief enough, and there was factitiousness in her smiles of assent to his views. A small iron casement between two of the mullions was open, and some occasional words of the dialogue were audible without.
‘As for drains — how can I put in drains? The pipes don’t cost much, that’s true; but the labour in sinking the trenches is ruination. And then the gates — they should be hung to stone posts, otherwise there’s no keeping them up through harvest.’ The Squire’s voice was strongly toned with the local accent, so that he said ‘drains’ and ‘geats’ like the rustics on his estate.
The landscape without grew darker, and the young man’s figure seemed to be absorbed into the trunk of the tree. The small stars filled in between the larger, the nebulae between the small stars, the trees quite lost their voice; and if there was still a sound, it was from the cascade of a stream which stretched along under the trees that bounded the lawn on its northern side.
At last the young girl did get to her feet and secure her retreat. ‘I have something to do, papa,’ she said. ‘I shall not be in the drawing-room just yet.’
‘Very well,’ replied he. ‘Then I won’t hurry.’ And closing the door behind her, he drew his decanters together and settled down in his chair.
Three minutes after that a woman’s shape emerged from the drawing-room window, and passing through a wall-door to the entrance front, came across the grass. She kept well clear of the dining-room window, but enough of its light fell on her to show, escaping from the dark-hooded cloak that she wore, stray verges of the same light dress which had figured but recently at the dinner-table. The hood was contracted tight about her face with a drawing-string, making her countenance small and baby-like, and lovelier even than before.
Without hesitation she brushed across the grass to the tree under which the young man stood concealed. The moment she had reached him he enclosed her form with his arm. The meeting and embrace, though by no means formal, were yet not passionate; the whole proceeding was that of persons who had repeated the act so often as to be unconscious of its performance. She turned within his arm, and faced in the same direction with himself, which was towards the window; and thus they stood without speaking, the back of her head leaning against his shoulder. For a while each seemed to be thinking his and her diverse thoughts.
‘You have kept me waiting a long time, dear Christine,’ he said at last. ‘I wanted to speak to you particularly, or I should not have stayed. How came you to be dining at this time o’ night?’
‘Father has been out all day, and dinner was put back till six. I know I have kept you; but Nicholas, how can I help it sometimes, if I am not to run any risk? My poor father insists upon my listening to all he has to say; since my brother left he has had nobody else to listen to him; and to-night he was particularly tedious on his usual topics — draining, and tenant-farmers, and the village people. I must take daddy to London; he gets so narrow always staying here.’
‘And what did you say to it all?’
‘Well, I took the part of the tenant-farmers, of course, as the beloved of one should in duty do.’ There followed a little break or gasp, implying a strangled sigh.
‘You are sorry you have encouraged that beloving one?’
‘O no, Nicholas . . . What is it you want to see me for particularly?’
‘I know you are sorry, as time goes on, and everything is at a dead-lock, with no prospect of change, and your rural swain loses his freshness! Only think, this secret understanding between us has lasted near three year, ever since you was a little over sixteen.’
‘Yes; it has been a long time.’
‘And I an untamed, uncultivated man, who has never seen London, and knows nothing about society at all.’
‘Not uncultivated, dear Nicholas. Untravelled, socially unpractised, if you will,’ she said, smiling. ‘Well, I did sigh; but not because I regret being your promised one. What I do sometimes regret is that the scheme, which my meetings with you are but a part of, has not been carried out completely. You said, Nicholas, that if I consented to swear to keep faith with you, you would go away and travel, and see nations, and peoples, and cities, and take a professor with you, and study books and art, simultaneously with your study of men and manners; and then come back at the end of two years, when I should find that my father would by no means be indisposed to accept you as a son-inlaw. You said your reason for wishing to get my promise before starting was that your mind would then be more at rest when you were far away, and so could give itself more completely to knowledge than if you went as my unaccepted lover only, fuming with anxiety as to how I should be when you came back. I saw how reasonable that was; and solemnly swore myself to you in consequence. But instead of going to see the world you stay on and on here to see me.’
‘And you don’t want me to see you?’
‘Yes — no — it is not that. It is that I have latterly felt frightened at what I am doing when not in your actual presence. It seems so wicked not to tell my father that I have a lover close at hand, within touch and view of both of us; whereas if you were absent my conduct would not seem quite so treacherous. The realities would not stare at one so. You would be a pleasant dream to me, which I should be free to indulge in without reproach of my conscience; I should live in hopeful expectation of your returning fully qualified to boldly claim me of my father. There, I have been terribly frank, I know.’
He in his turn had lapsed into gloomy breathings now. ‘I did plan it as you state,’ he answered. ‘I did mean to go away the moment I had your promise. But, dear Christine, I did not foresee two or three things. I did not know what a lot of pain it would cost to tear myself from you. And I did not know that my stingy uncle — heaven forgive me calling him so! — would so flatly refuse to advance me money for my purpose — the scheme of travelling with a first-rate tutor costing a formidable sum o’ money. You have no idea what it would cost!’
‘But I have said that I’ll find the money.’
‘Ah, there,’ he returned, ‘you have hit a sore place. To speak truly, dear, I would rather stay unpolished a hundred years than take your money.’
‘But why? Men continually use the money of the women they marry.’
‘Yes; but not till afterwards. No man would like to touch your money at present, and I should feel very mean if I were to do so in present circumstances. That brings me to what I was going to propose. But no — upon the whole I will not propose it now.’
‘Ah! I would guarantee expenses, and you won’t let me! The money is my personal possession: it comes to me from my late grandfather, and not from my father at all.’
He laughed forcedly and pressed her hand. ‘There are more reasons why I cannot tear myself away,’ he added. ‘What would become of my uncle’s farming? Six hundred acres in this parish, and five hundred in the next — a constant traipsing from one farm to the other; he can’t be in two places at once. Still, that might be got over if it were not for the other matters. Besides, dear, I still should be a little uneasy, even though I have your promise, lest somebody should snap you up away from me.’
‘Ah, you should have thought of that before. Otherwise I have committed myself for nothing.’
‘I should have thought of it,’ he answered gravely. ‘But I did not. There lies my fault, I admit it freely. Ah, if you would only commit yourself a little more, I might at least get over that difficulty! But I won’t ask you. You have no idea how much you are to me still; you could not argue so coolly if you had. What property belongs to you I hate the very sound of; it is you I care for. I wish you hadn’t a farthing in the world but what I could earn for you!’
‘I don’t altogether wish that,’ she murmured.
‘I wish it, because it would have made what I was going to propose much easier to do than it is now. Indeed I will not propose it, although I came on purpose, after what you have said in your frankness.’
‘Nonsense, Nic. Come, tell me. How can you be so touchy?’
‘Look at this then, Christine dear.’ He drew from his breast-pocket a sheet of paper and unfolded it, when it was observable that a seal dangled from the bottom.
‘What is it?’ She held the paper sideways, so that what there was of window-light fell on its surface. ‘I can only read the Old English letters — why — our names! Surely it is not a marriage-licence?’
She trembled. ‘O Nic! how could you do this — and without telling me!’
‘Why should I have thought I must tell you? You had not spoken “frankly” then as you have now. We have been all to each other more than these two years, and I thought I would propose that we marry privately, and that I then leave you on the instant. I would have taken my travelling-bag to church, and you would have gone home alone. I should not have started on my adventures in the brilliant manner of our original plan, but should have roughed it a little at first; my great gain would have been that the absolute possession of you would have enabled me to work with spirit and purpose, such as nothing else could do. But I dare not ask you now — so frank as you have been.’
She did not answer. The document he had produced gave such unexpected substantiality to the venture with which she had so long toyed as a vague dream merely, that she was, in truth, frightened a little. ‘I— don’t know about it!’ she said.
‘Perhaps not. Ah, my little lady, you are wearying of me!’
‘No, Nic,’ responded she, creeping closer. ‘I am not. Upon my word, and truth, and honour, I am not, Nic.’
‘A mere tiller of the soil, as I should be called,’ he continued, without heeding her. ‘And you — well, a daughter of one of the — I won’t say oldest families, because that’s absurd, all families are the same age — one of the longest chronicled families about here, whose name is actually the name of the place.’
‘That’s not much, I am sorry to say! My poor brother — but I won’t speak of that . . . Well,’ she murmured mischievously, after a pause, ‘you certainly would not need to be uneasy if I were to do this that you want me to do. You would have me safe enough in your trap then; I couldn’t get away!’
‘That’s just it!’ he said vehemently. ‘It is a trap — you feel it so, and that though you wouldn’t be able to get away from me you might particularly wish to! Ah, if I had asked you two years ago you would have agreed instantly. But I thought I was bound to wait for the proposal to come from you as the superior!’
‘Now you are angry, and take seriously what I meant purely in fun. You don’t know me even yet! To show you that you have not been mistaken in me, I do propose to carry out this licence. I’ll marry you, dear Nicholas, tomorrow morning.’
‘Ah, Christine! I am afraid I have stung you on to this, so that I cannot —’
‘No, no, no!’ she hastily rejoined; and there was something in her tone which suggested that she had been put upon her mettle and would not flinch. ‘Take me whilst I am in the humour. What church is the licence for?’
‘That I’ve not looked to see — why our parish church here, of course. Ah, then we cannot use it! We dare not be married here.’
‘We do dare,’ said she. ‘And we will too, if you’ll be there.’
‘If I’ll be there!’
They speedily came to an agreement that he should be in the church-porch at ten minutes to eight on the following morning, awaiting her; and that, immediately after the conclusion of the service which would make them one, Nicholas should set out on his long-deferred educational tour, towards the cost of which she was resolving to bring a substantial subscription with her to church. Then, slipping from him, she went indoors by the way she had come, and Nicholas bent his steps homewards.
Instead of leaving the spot by the gate, he flung himself over the fence, and pursued a direction towards the river under the trees. And it was now, in his lonely progress, that he showed for the first time outwardly that he was not altogether unworthy of her. He wore long water-boots reaching above his knees, and, instead of making a circuit to find a bridge by which he might cross the Froom — the river aforesaid — he made straight for the point whence proceeded the low roar that was at this hour the only evidence of the stream’s existence. He speedily stood on the verge of the waterfall which caused the noise, and stepping into the water at the top of the fall, waded through with the sure tread of one who knew every inch of his footing, even though the canopy of trees rendered the darkness almost absolute, and a false step would have precipitated him into the pool beneath. Soon reaching the boundary of the grounds, he continued in the same direct line to traverse the alluvial valley, full of brooks and tributaries to the main stream — in former times quite impassable, and impassable in winter now. Sometimes he would cross a deep gully on a plank not wider than the hand; at another time he ploughed his way through beds of spear-grass, where at a few feet to the right or left he might have been sucked down into a morass. At last he reached firm land on the other side of this watery tract, and came to his house on the rise behind — Elsenford — an ordinary farmstead, from the back of which rose indistinct breathings, belchings, and snortings, the rattle of halters, and other familiar features of an agriculturist’s home.
While Nicholas Long was packing his bag in an upper room of this dwelling, Miss Christine Everard sat at a desk in her own chamber at Froom–Everard manor-house, looking with pale fixed countenance at the candles.
‘I ought — I must now!’ she whispered to herself. ‘I should not have begun it if I had not meant to carry it through! It runs in the blood of us, I suppose.’ She alluded to a fact unknown to her lover, the clandestine marriage of an aunt under circumstances somewhat similar to the present. In a few minutes she had penned the following note:—
October 13, 183-.
DEAR MR. BEALAND— Can you make it convenient to yourself to meet me at the Church tomorrow morning at eight? I name the early hour because it would suit me better than later on in the day. You will find me in the chancel, if you can come. An answer yes or no by the bearer of this will be sufficient.
She sent the note to the rector immediately, waiting at a small side-door of the house till she heard the servant’s footsteps returning along the lane, when she went round and met him in the passage. The rector had taken the trouble to write a line, and answered that he would meet her with pleasure.
A dripping fog which ushered in the next morning was highly favourable to the scheme of the pair. At that time of the century Froom–Everard House had not been altered and enlarged; the public lane passed close under its walls; and there was a door opening directly from one of the old parlours — the south parlour, as it was called — into the lane which led to the village. Christine came out this way, and after following the lane for a short distance entered upon a path within a belt of plantation, by which the church could be reached privately. She even avoided the churchyard gate, walking along to a place where the turf without the low wall rose into a mound, enabling her to mount upon the coping and spring down inside. She crossed the wet graves, and so glided round to the door. He was there, with his bag in his hand. He kissed her with a sort of surprise, as if he had expected that at the last moment her heart would fail her.
Though it had not failed her, there was, nevertheless, no great ardour in Christine’s bearing — merely the momentum of an antecedent impulse. They went up the aisle together, the bottle-green glass of the old lead quarries admitting but little light at that hour, and under such an atmosphere. They stood by the altar-rail in silence, Christine’s skirt visibly quivering at each beat of her heart.
Presently a quick step ground upon the gravel, and Mr. Bealand came round by the front. He was a quiet bachelor, courteous towards Christine, and not at first recognizing in Nicholas a neighbouring yeoman (for he lived aloofly in the next parish), advanced to her without revealing any surprise at her unusual request. But in truth he was surprised, the keen interest taken by many country young women at the present day in church decoration and festivals being then unknown.
‘Good morning,’ he said; and repeated the same words to Nicholas more mechanically.
‘Good morning,’ she replied gravely. ‘Mr. Bealand, I have a serious reason for asking you to meet me — us, I may say. We wish you to marry us.’
The rector’s gaze hardened to fixity, rather between than upon either of them, and he neither moved nor replied for some time.
‘Ah!’ he said at last.
‘And we are quite ready.’
‘I had no idea —’
‘It has been kept rather private,’ she said calmly.
‘Where are your witnesses?’
‘They are outside in the meadow, sir. I can call them in a moment,’ said Nicholas.
‘Oh — I see it is — Mr. Nicholas Long,’ said Mr. Bealand, and turning again to Christine, ‘Does your father know of this?’
‘Is it necessary that I should answer that question, Mr. Bealand?’
‘I am afraid it is — highly necessary.’
Christine began to look concerned.
‘Where is the licence?’ the rector asked; ‘since there have been no banns.’
Nicholas produced it, Mr. Bealand read it, an operation which occupied him several minutes — or at least he made it appear so; till Christine said impatiently, ‘We are quite ready, Mr. Bealand. Will you proceed? Mr. Long has to take a journey of a great many miles today.’
‘No. I remain.’
Mr. Bealand assumed firmness. ‘There is something wrong in this,’ he said. ‘I cannot marry you without your father’s presence.’
‘But have you a right to refuse us?’ interposed Nicholas. ‘I believe we are in a position to demand your fulfilment of our request.’
‘No, you are not! Is Miss Everard of age? I think not. I think she is months from being so. Eh, Miss Everard?’
‘Am I bound to tell that?’
‘Certainly. At any rate you are bound to write it. Meanwhile I refuse to solemnize the service. And let me entreat you two young people to do nothing so rash as this, even if by going to some strange church, you may do so without discovery. The tragedy of marriage —’
‘Certainly. It is full of crises and catastrophes, and ends with the death of one of the actors. The tragedy of marriage, as I was saying, is one I shall not be a party to your beginning with such light hearts, and I shall feel bound to put your father on his guard, Miss Everard. Think better of it, I entreat you! Remember the proverb, “Marry in haste and repent at leisure.”’
Christine, spurred by opposition, almost stormed at him. Nicholas implored; but nothing would turn that obstinate rector. She sat down and reflected. By-and-by she confronted Mr. Bealand.
‘Our marriage is not to be this morning, I see,’ she said. ‘Now grant me one favour, and in return I’ll promise you to do nothing rashly. Do not tell my father a word of what has happened here.’
‘I agree — if you undertake not to elope.’
She looked at Nicholas, and he looked at her. ‘Do you wish me to elope, Nic?’ she asked.
‘No,’ he said.
So the compact was made, and they left the church singly, Nicholas remaining till the last, and closing the door. On his way home, carrying the well-packed bag which was just now to go no further, the two men who were mending water-carriers in the meadows approached the hedge, as if they had been on the alert all the time.
‘You said you mid want us for zummat, sir?’
‘All right — never mind,’ he answered through the hedge. ‘I did not require you after all.’
At a manor not far away there lived a queer and primitive couple who had lately been blessed with a son and heir. The christening took place during the week under notice, and this had been followed by a feast to the parishioners. Christine’s father, one of the same generation and kind, had been asked to drive over and assist in the entertainment, and Christine, as a matter of course, accompanied him.
When they reached Athelhall, as the house was called, they found the usually quiet nook a lively spectacle. Tables had been spread in the apartment which lent its name to the whole building — the hall proper — covered with a fine open-timbered roof, whose braces, purlins, and rafters made a brown thicket of oak overhead. Here tenantry of all ages sat with their wives and families, and the servants were assisted in their ministrations by the sons and daughters of the owner’s friends and neighbours. Christine lent a hand among the rest.
She was holding a plate in each hand towards a huge brown platter of baked rice-pudding, from which a footman was scooping a large spoonful, when a voice reached her ear over her shoulder: ‘Allow me to hold them for you.’
Christine turned, and recognized in the speaker the nephew of the entertainer, a young man from London, whom she had already met on two or three occasions.
She accepted the proffered help, and from that moment, whenever he passed her in their marchings to and fro during the remainder of the serving, he smiled acquaintance. When their work was done, he improved the few words into a conversation. He plainly had been attracted by her fairness.
Bellston was a self-assured young man, not particularly good-looking, with more colour in his skin than even Nicholas had. He had flushed a little in attracting her notice, though the flush had nothing of nervousness in it — the air with which it was accompanied making it curiously suggestive of a flush of anger; and even when he laughed it was difficult to banish that fancy.
The late autumn sunlight streamed in through the window panes upon the heads and shoulders of the venerable patriarchs of the hamlet, and upon the middle-aged, and upon the young; upon men and women who had played out, or were to play, tragedies or tragi-comedies in that nook of civilization not less great, essentially, than those which, enacted on more central arenas, fix the attention of the world. One of the party was a cousin of Nicholas Long’s, who sat with her husband and children.
To make himself as locally harmonious as possible, Mr. Bellston remarked to his companion on the scene —‘It does one’s heart good,’ he said, ‘to see these simple peasants enjoying themselves.’
‘O Mr. Bellston!’ exclaimed Christine; ‘don’t be too sure about that word “simple”! You little think what they see and meditate! Their reasonings and emotions are as complicated as ours.’
She spoke with a vehemence which would have been hardly present in her words but for her own relation to Nicholas. The sense of that produced in her a nameless depression thenceforward. The young man, however, still followed her up.
‘I am glad to hear you say it,’ he returned warmly. ‘I was merely attuning myself to your mood, as I thought. The real truth is that I know more of the Parthians, and Medes, and dwellers in Mesopotamia — almost of any people, indeed — than of the English rustics. Travel and exploration are my profession, not the study of the British peasantry.’
Travel. There was sufficient coincidence between his declaration and the course she had urged upon her lover, to lend Bellston’s account of himself a certain interest in Christine’s ears. He might perhaps be able to tell her something that would be useful to Nicholas, if their dream were carried out. A door opened from the hall into the garden, and she somehow found herself outside, chatting with Mr. Bellston on this topic, till she thought that upon the whole she liked the young man. The garden being his uncle’s, he took her round it with an air of proprietorship; and they went on amongst the Michaelmas daisies and chrysanthemums, and through a door to the fruit-garden. A green-house was open, and he went in and cut her a bunch of grapes.
‘How daring of you! They are your uncle’s.’
‘O, he don’t mind — I do anything here. A rough old buffer, isn’t he?’
She was thinking of her Nic, and felt that, by comparison with her present acquaintance, the farmer more than held his own as a fine and intelligent fellow; but the harmony with her own existence in little things, which she found here, imparted an alien tinge to Nicholas just now. The latter, idealized by moonlight, or a thousand miles of distance, was altogether a more romantic object for a woman’s dream than this smart new-lacquered man; but in the sun of afternoon, and amid a surrounding company, Mr. Bellston was a very tolerable companion.
When they re-entered the hall, Bellston entreated her to come with him up a spiral stair in the thickness of the wall, leading to a passage and gallery whence they could look down upon the scene below. The people had finished their feast, the newly-christened baby had been exhibited, and a few words having been spoken to them they began, amid a racketing of forms, to make for the greensward without, Nicholas’s cousin and cousin’s wife and cousin’s children among the rest. While they were filing out, a voice was heard calling —‘Hullo! — here, Jim; where are you?’ said Bellston’s uncle. The young man descended, Christine following at leisure.
‘Now will ye be a good fellow,’ the Squire continued, ‘and set them going outside in some dance or other that they know? I’m dog-tired, and I want to have a yew words with Mr. Everard before we join ’em — hey, Everard? They are shy till somebody starts ’em; afterwards they’ll keep gwine brisk enough.’
‘Ay, that they wool,’ said Squire Everard.
They followed to the lawn; and here it proved that James Bellston was as shy, or rather as averse, as any of the tenantry themselves, to acting the part of fugleman. Only the parish people had been at the feast, but outlying neighbours had now strolled in for a dance.
‘They want “Speed the Plough,”’ said Bellston, coming up breathless. ‘It must be a country dance, I suppose? Now, Miss Everard, do have pity upon me. I am supposed to lead off; but really I know no more about speeding the plough than a child just born! Would you take one of the villagers? — just to start them, my uncle says. Suppose you take that handsome young farmer over there — I don’t know his name, but I dare say you do — and I’ll come on with one of the dairyman’s daughters as a second couple.’
Christine turned in the direction signified, and changed colour — though in the shade nobody noticed it, ‘Oh, yes — I know him,’ she said coolly. ‘He is from near our own place — Mr. Nicholas Long.’
‘That’s capital — then you can easily make him stand as first couple with you. Now I must pick up mine.’
‘I— I think I’ll dance with you, Mr. Bellston,’ she said with some trepidation. ‘Because, you see,’ she explained eagerly, ‘I know the figure and you don’t — so that I can help you; while Nicholas Long, I know, is familiar with the figure, and that will make two couples who know it — which is necessary, at least.’
Bellston showed his gratification by one of his angry-pleasant flushes — he had hardly dared to ask for what she proffered freely; and having requested Nicholas to take the dairyman’s daughter, led Christine to her place, Long promptly stepping up second with his charge. There were grim silent depths in Nic’s character; a small deedy spark in his eye, as it caught Christine’s, was all that showed his consciousness of her. Then the fiddlers began — the celebrated Mellstock fiddlers who, given free stripping, could play from sunset to dawn without turning a hair. The couples wheeled and swung, Nicholas taking Christine’s hand in the course of business with the figure, when she waited for him to give it a little squeeze; but he did not.
Christine had the greatest difficulty in steering her partner through the maze, on account of his self-will, and when at last they reached the bottom of the long line, she was breathless with her hard labour.. Resting here, she watched Nic and his lady; and, though she had decidedly cooled off in these later months, began to admire him anew. Nobody knew these dances like him, after all, or could do anything of this sort so well. His performance with the dairyman’s daughter so won upon her, that when ‘Speed the Plough’ was over she contrived to speak to him.
‘Nic, you are to dance with me next time.’
He said he would, and presently asked her in a formal public manner, lifting his hat gallantly. She showed a little backwardness, which he quite understood, and allowed him to lead her to the top, a row of enormous length appearing below them as if by magic as soon as they had taken their places. Truly the Squire was right when he said that they only wanted starting.
‘What is it to be?’ whispered Nicholas.
She turned to the band. ‘The Honeymoon,’ she said.
And then they trod the delightful last-century measure of that name, which if it had been ever danced better, was never danced with more zest. The perfect responsiveness which their tender acquaintance threw into the motions of Nicholas and his partner lent to their gyrations the fine adjustment of two interacting parts of a single machine. The excitement of the movement carried Christine back to the time — the unreflecting passionate time, about two years before — when she and Nic had been incipient lovers only; and it made her forget the carking anxieties, the vision of social breakers ahead, that had begun to take the gilding off her position now. Nicholas, on his part, had never ceased to be a lover; no personal worries had as yet made him conscious of any staleness, flatness, or unprofitableness in his admiration of Christine.
‘Not quite so wildly, Nic,’ she whispered. ‘I don’t object personally; but they’ll notice us. How came you here?’
‘I heard that you had driven over; and I set out — on purpose for this.’
‘What — you have walked?’
‘Yes. If I had waited for one of uncle’s horses I should have been too late.’
‘Five miles here and five back — ten miles on foot — merely to dance!’
‘With you. What made you think of this old “Honeymoon” thing?’
‘O! it came into my head when I saw you, as what would have been a reality with us if you had not been stupid about that licence, and had got it for a distant church.’
‘Shall we try again?’
‘No — I don’t know. I’ll think it over.’
The villagers admired their grace and skill, as the dancers themselves perceived; but they did not know what accompanied that admiration in one spot, at least.
‘People who wonder they can foot it so featly together should know what some others think,’ a waterman was saying to his neighbour. ‘Then their wonder would be less.’
His comrade asked for information.
‘Well — really I hardly believe it — but ’tis said they be man and wife. Yes, sure — went to church and did the job a’most afore ’twas light one morning. But mind, not a word of this; for ‘twould be the loss of a winter’s work to me if I had spread such a report and it were not true.’
When the dance had ended she rejoined her own section of the company. Her father and Mr. Bellston the elder had now come out from the house, and were smoking in the background. Presently she found that her father was at her elbow.
‘Christine, don’t dance too often with young Long — as a mere matter of prudence, I mean, as volk might think it odd, he being one of our own neighbouring farmers. I should not mention this to ‘ee if he were an ordinary young fellow; but being superior to the rest it behoves you to be careful.’
‘Exactly, papa,’ said Christine.
But the revived sense that she was deceiving him threw a damp over her spirits. ‘But, after all,’ she said to herself, ‘he is a young man of Elsenford, handsome, able, and the soul of honour; and I am a young woman of the adjoining parish, who have been constantly thrown into communication with him. Is it not, by nature’s rule, the most proper thing in the world that I should marry him, and is it not an absurd conventional regulation which says that such a union would be wrong?’
It may be concluded that the strength of Christine’s large-minded argument was rather an evidence of weakness than of strength in the passion it concerned, which had required neither argument nor reasoning of any kind for its maintenance when full and flush in its early days.
When driving home in the dark with her father she sank into pensive silence. She was thinking of Nicholas having to trudge on foot all those miles back after his exertions on the sward. Mr. Everard, arousing himself from a nap, said suddenly, ‘I have something to mention to ‘ee, by George — so I have, Chris! You probably know what it is?’
She expressed ignorance, wondering if her father had discovered anything of her secret.
‘Well, according to him you know it. But I will tell ‘ee. Perhaps you noticed young Jim Bellston walking me off down the lawn with him? — whether or no, we walked together a good while; and he informed me that he wanted to pay his addresses to ‘ee. I naturally said that it depended upon yourself; and he replied that you were willing enough; you had given him particular encouragement — showing your preference for him by specially choosing him for your partner — hey? “In that case,” says I, “go on and conquer — settle it with her — I have no objection.” The poor fellow was very grateful, and in short, there we left the matter. He’ll propose tomorrow.’
She saw now to her dismay what James Bellston had read as encouragement. ‘He has mistaken me altogether,’ she said. ‘I had no idea of such a thing.’
‘What, you won’t have him?’
‘Indeed, I cannot!’
‘Chrissy,’ said Mr. Everard with emphasis, ‘there’s noobody whom I should so like you to marry as that young man. He’s a thoroughly clever fellow, and fairly well provided for. He’s travelled all over the temperate zone; but he says that directly he marries he’s going to give up all that, and be a regular stay-at-home. You would be nowhere safer than in his hands.’
‘It is true,’ she answered. ‘He is a highly desirable match, and I should be well provided for, and probably very safe in his hands.’
‘Then don’t be skittish, and stand-to.’
She had spoken from her conscience and understanding, and not to please her father. As a reflecting woman she believed that such a marriage would be a wise one. In great things Nicholas was closest to her nature; in little things Bellston seemed immeasurably nearer than Nic; and life was made up of little things.
Altogether the firmament looked black for Nicholas Long, notwithstanding her half-hour’s ardour for him when she saw him dancing with the dairyman’s daughter. Most great passions, movements, and beliefs — individual and national — burst during their decline into a temporary irradiation, which rivals their original splendour; and then they speedily become extinct. Perhaps the dance had given the last flare-up to Christine’s love. It seemed to have improvidently consumed for its immediate purpose all her ardour forwards, so that for the future there was nothing left but frigidity.
Nicholas had certainly been very foolish about that licence!
This laxity of emotional tone was further increased by an incident, when, two days later, she kept an appointment with Nicholas in the Sallows. The Sallows was an extension of shrubberies and plantations along the banks of the Froom, accessible from the lawn of Froom–Everard House only, except by wading through the river at the waterfall or elsewhere. Near the brink was a thicket of box in which a trunk lay prostrate; this had been once or twice their trysting-place, though it was by no means a safe one; and it was here she sat awaiting him now.
The noise of the stream muffled any sound of footsteps, and it was before she was aware of his approach that she looked up and saw him wading across at the top of the waterfall.
Noontide lights and dwarfed shadows always banished the romantic aspect of her love for Nicholas. Moreover, something new had occurred to disturb her; and if ever she had regretted giving way to a tenderness for him — which perhaps she had not done with any distinctness — she regretted it now. Yet in the bottom of their hearts those two were excellently paired, the very twin halves of a perfect whole; and their love was pure. But at this hour surfaces showed garishly, and obscured the depths. Probably her regret appeared in her face.
He walked up to her without speaking, the water running from his boots; and, taking one of her hands in each of his own, looked narrowly into her eyes.
‘Have you thought it over?’
‘Whether we shall try again; you remember saying you would at the dance?’
‘Oh, I had forgotten that!’
‘You are sorry we tried at all!’ he said accusingly.
‘I am not so sorry for the fact as for the rumours,’ she said.
‘They say we are already married.’
‘I cannot tell exactly. I heard some whispering to that effect. Somebody in the village told one of the servants, I believe. This man said that he was crossing the churchyard early on that unfortunate foggy morning, and heard voices in the chancel, and peeped through the window as well as the dim panes would let him; and there he saw you and me and Mr. Bealand, and so on; but thinking his surmises would be dangerous knowledge, he hastened on. And so the story got afloat. Then your aunt, too —’
‘Good Lord! — what has she done?’
The story was, told her, and she said proudly, “O yes, it is true enough. I have seen the licence. But it is not to be known yet.”’
‘Seen the licence? How the —’
‘Accidentally, I believe, when your coat was hanging somewhere.’
The information, coupled with the infelicitous word ‘proudly,’ caused Nicholas to flush with mortification. He knew that it was in his aunt’s nature to make a brag of that sort; but worse than the brag was the fact that this was the first occasion on which Christine had deigned to show her consciousness that such a marriage would be a source of pride to his relatives — the only two he had in the world.
‘You are sorry, then, even to be thought my wife, much less to be it.’ He dropped her hand, which fell lifelessly.
‘It is not sorry exactly, dear Nic. But I feel uncomfortable and vexed, that after screwing up my courage, my fidelity, to the point of going to church, you should have so muddled — managed the matter that it has ended in neither one thing nor the other. How can I meet acquaintances, when I don’t know what they are thinking of me?’
‘Then, dear Christine, let us mend the muddle. I’ll go away for a few days and get another licence, and you can come to me.’
She shrank from this perceptibly. ‘I cannot screw myself up to it a second time,’ she said. ‘I am sure I cannot! Besides, I promised Mr. Bealand. And yet how can I continue to see you after such a rumour? We shall be watched now, for certain.’
‘Then don’t see me.’
‘I fear I must not for the present. Altogether —’
‘I am very depressed.’
These views were not very inspiriting to Nicholas, as he construed them. It may indeed have been possible that he construed them wrongly, and should have insisted upon her making the rumour true. Unfortunately, too, he had come to her in a hurry through brambles and briars, water and weed, and the shaggy wildness which hung about his appearance at this fine and correct time of day lent an impracticability to the look of him.
‘You blame me — you repent your courses — you repent that you ever, ever owned anything to me!’
‘No, Nicholas, I do not repent that,’ she returned gently, though with firmness. ‘But I think that you ought not to have got that licence without asking me first; and I also think that you ought to have known how it would be if you lived on here in your present position, and made no effort to better it. I can bear whatever comes, for social ruin is not personal ruin or even personal disgrace. But as a sensible, new-risen poet says, whom I have been reading this morning:—
The world and its ways have a certain worth:
And to press a point while these oppose
Were simple policy. Better wait.
As soon as you had got my promise, Nic, you should have gone away — yes — and made a name, and come back to claim me. That was my silly girlish dream about my hero.’
‘Perhaps I can do as much yet! And would you have indeed liked better to live away from me for family reasons, than to run a risk in seeing me for affection’s sake? O what a cold heart it has grown! If I had been a prince, and you a dairymaid, I’d have stood by you in the face of the world!’
She shook her head. ‘Ah — you don’t know what society is — you don’t know.’
‘Perhaps not. Who was that strange gentleman of about seven-and-twenty I saw at Mr. Bellston’s christening feast?’
‘Oh — that was his nephew James. Now he is a man who has seen an unusual extent of the world for his age. He is a great traveller, you know.’
‘In fact an explorer. He is very entertaining.’
Nicholas received no shock of jealousy from her announcement. He knew her so well that he could see she was not in the least in love with Bellston. But he asked if Bellston were going to continue his explorations.
‘Not if he settles in life. Otherwise he will, I suppose.’
‘Perhaps I could be a great explorer, too, if I tried.’
‘You could, I am sure.’
They sat apart, and not together; each looking afar off at vague objects, and not in each other’s eyes. Thus the sad autumn afternoon waned, while the waterfall hissed sarcastically of the inevitableness of the unpleasant. Very different this from the time when they had first met there.
The nook was most picturesque; but it looked horridly common and stupid now. Their sentiment had set a colour hardly less visible than a material one on surrounding objects, as sentiment must where life is but thought. Nicholas was as devoted as ever to the fair Christine; but unhappily he too had moods and humours, and the division between them was not closed.
She had no sooner got indoors and sat down to her work-table than her father entered the drawing-room.
She handed him his newspaper; he took it without a word, went and stood on the hearthrug, and flung the paper on the floor.
‘Christine, what’s the meaning of this terrible story? I was just on my way to look at the register.’
She looked at him without speech.
‘You have married — Nicholas Long?’
‘No? Can you say no in the face of such facts as I have been put in possession of?’
‘But — the note you wrote to the rector — and the going to church?’
She briefly explained that their attempt had failed.
‘Ah! Then this is what that dancing meant, was it? By — — it makes me ——. How long has this been going on, may I ask?’
‘What, indeed! Why, making him your beau. Now listen to me. All’s well that ends well; from this day, madam, this moment, he is to be nothing more to you. You are not to see him. Cut him adrift instantly! I only wish his volk were on my farm — out they should go, or I would know the reason why. However, you are to write him a letter to this effect at once.’
‘How can I cut him adrift?’
‘Why not? You must, my good maid!’
‘Well, though I have not actually married him, I have solemnly sworn to be his wife when he comes home from abroad to claim me. It would be gross perjury not to fulfil my promise. Besides, no woman can go to church with a man to deliberately solemnize matrimony, and refuse him afterwards, if he does nothing wrong meanwhile.’
The uttered sound of her strong conviction seemed to kindle in Christine a livelier perception of all its bearings than she had known while it had lain unformulated in her mind. For when she had done speaking she fell down on her knees before her father, covered her face, and said, ‘Please, please forgive me, papa! How could I do it without letting you know! I don’t know, I don’t know!’
When she looked up she found that, in the turmoil of his mind, her father was moving about the room. ‘You are within an ace of ruining yourself, ruining me, ruining us all!’ he said. ‘You are nearly as bad as your brother, begad!’
‘Perhaps I am — yes — perhaps I am!’
‘That I should father such a harum-scarum brood!’
‘It is very bad; but Nicholas —’
‘He’s a scoundrel!’
‘He is not a scoundrel!’ cried she, turning quickly. ‘He’s as good and worthy as you or I, or anybody bearing our name, or any nobleman in the kingdom, if you come to that! Only — only’— she could not continue the argument on those lines. ‘Now, father, listen!’ she sobbed; ‘if you taunt me I’ll go off and join him at his farm this very day, and marry him tomorrow, that’s what I’ll do!’
‘I don’t taant ye!’
‘I wish to avoid unseemliness as much as you.’
She went away. When she came back a quarter of an hour later, thinking to find the room empty, he was standing there as before, never having apparently moved. His manner had quite changed. He seemed to take a resigned and entirely different view of circumstances.
‘Christine, here’s a paragraph in the paper hinting at a secret wedding, and I’m blazed if it don’t point to you. Well, since this was to happen, I’ll bear it, and not complain. All volk have crosses, and this is one of mine. Now, this is what I’ve got to say — I feel that you must carry out this attempt at marrying Nicholas Long. Faith, you must! The rumour will become a scandal if you don’t — that’s my view. I have tried to look at the brightest side of the case. Nicholas Long is a young man superior to most of his class, and fairly presentable. And he’s not poor — at least his uncle is not. I believe the old muddler could buy me up any day. However, a farmer’s wife you must be, as far as I can see. As you’ve made your bed, so ye must lie. Parents propose, and ungrateful children dispose. You shall marry him, and immediately.’
Christine hardly knew what to make of this. ‘He is quite willing to wait, and so am I. We can wait for two or three years, and then he will be as worthy as —’
‘You must marry him. And the sooner the better, if ’tis to be done at all . . . And yet I did wish you could have been Jim Bellston’s wife. I did wish it! But no.’
‘I, too, wished it and do still, in one sense,’ she returned gently. His moderation had won her out of her defiant mood, and she was willing to reason with him.
‘You do?’ he said surprised.
‘I see that in a worldly sense my conduct with Mr. Long may be considered a mistake.’
‘H’m — I am glad to hear that — after my death you may see it more clearly still; and you won’t have long to wait, to my reckoning.’
She fell into bitter repentance, and kissed him in her anguish. ‘Don’t say that!’ she cried. ‘Tell me what to do?’
‘If you’ll leave me for an hour or two I’ll think. Drive to the market and back — the carriage is at the door — and I’ll try to collect my senses. Dinner can be put back till you return.’
In a few minutes she was dressed, and the carriage bore her up the hill which divided the village and manor from the market-town.
A quarter of an hour brought her into the High Street, and for want of a more important errand she called at the harness-maker’s for a dog-collar that she required.
It happened to be market-day, and Nicholas, having postponed the engagements which called him thither to keep the appointment with her in the Sallows, rushed off at the end of the afternoon to attend to them as well as he could. Arriving thus in a great hurry on account of the lateness of the hour, he still retained the wild, amphibious appearance which had marked him when he came up from the meadows to her side — an exceptional condition of things which had scarcely ever before occurred. When she crossed the pavement from the shop door, the shopman bowing and escorting her to the carriage, Nicholas chanced to be standing at the road-waggon office, talking to the master of the waggons. There were a good many people about, and those near paused and looked at her transit, in the full stroke of the level October sun, which went under the brims of their hats, and pierced through their button-holes. From the group she heard murmured the words: ‘Mrs. Nicholas Long.’
The unexpected remark, not without distinct satire in its tone, took her so greatly by surprise that she was confounded. Nicholas was by this time nearer, though coming against the sun he had not yet perceived her. Influenced by her father’s lecture, she felt angry with him for being there and causing this awkwardness. Her notice of him was therefore slight, supercilious perhaps, slurred over; and her vexation at his presence showed distinctly in her face as she sat down in her seat. Instead of catching his waiting eye, she positively turned her head away.
A moment after she was sorry she had treated him so; but he was gone.
Reaching home she found on her dressing-table a note from her father. The statement was brief:
I have considered and am of the same opinion. You must marry him. He can leave home at once and travel as proposed. I have written to him to this effect. I don’t want any victuals, so don’t wait dinner for me.
Nicholas was the wrong kind of man to be blind to his Christine’s mortification, though he did not know its entire cause. He had lately foreseen something of this sort as possible.
‘It serves me right,’ he thought, as he trotted homeward. ‘It was absurd — wicked of me to lead her on so. The sacrifice would have been too great — too cruel!’ And yet, though he thus took her part, he flushed with indignation every time he said to himself, ‘She is ashamed of me!’
On the ridge which overlooked Froom–Everard he met a neighbour of his — a stock-dealer — in his gig, and they drew rein and exchanged a few words. A part of the dealer’s conversation had much meaning for Nicholas.
‘I’ve had occasion to call on Squire Everard,’ the former said; ‘but he couldn’t see me on account of being quite knocked up at some bad news he has heard.’
Nicholas rode on past Froom–Everard to Elsenford Farm, pondering. He had new and startling matter for thought as soon as he got there. The Squire’s note had arrived. At first he could not credit its import; then he saw further, took in the tone of the letter, saw the writer’s contempt behind the words, and understood that the letter was written as by a man hemmed into a corner. Christine was defiantly — insultingly — hurled at his head. He was accepted because he was so despised.
And yet with what respect he had treated her and hers! Now he was reminded of what an agricultural friend had said years ago, seeing the eyes of Nicholas fixed on Christine as on an angel when she passed: ‘Better a little fire to warm ‘ee than a great one to burn ‘ee. No good can come of throwing your heart there.’ He went into the mead, sat down, and asked himself four questions:
1. How could she live near her acquaintance as his wife, even in his absence, without suffering martyrdom from the stings of their contempt?
2. Would not this entail total estrangement between Christine and her family also, and her own consequent misery?
3. Must not such isolation extinguish her affection for him?
4. Supposing that her father rigged them out as colonists and sent them off to America, was not the effect of such exile upon one of her gentle nurture likely to be as the last?
In short, whatever they should embark in together would be cruelty to her, and his death would be a relief. It would, indeed, in one aspect be a relief to her now, if she were so ashamed of him as she had appeared to be that day. Were he dead, this little episode with him would fade away like a dream.
Mr. Everard was a good-hearted man at bottom, but to take his enraged offer seriously was impossible. Obviously it was hotly made in his first bitterness at what he had heard. The least thing that he could do would be to go away and never trouble her more. To travel and learn and come back in two years, as mapped out in their first sanguine scheme, required a staunch heart on her side, if the necessary expenditure of time and money were to be afterwards justified; and it were folly to calculate on that when he had seen today that her heart was failing her already. To travel and disappear and not be heard of for many years would be a far more independent stroke, and it would leave her entirely unfettered. Perhaps he might rival in this kind the accomplished Mr. Bellston, of whose journeyings he had heard so much.
He sat and sat, and the fog rose out of the river, enveloping him like a fleece; first his feet and knees, then his arms and body, and finally submerging his head. When he had come to a decision he went up again into the homestead. He would be independent, if he died for it, and he would free Christine. Exile was the only course. The first step was to inform his uncle of his determination.
Two days later Nicholas was on the same spot in the mead, at almost the same hour of eve. But there was no fog now; a blusterous autumn wind had ousted the still, golden days and misty nights; and he was going, full of purpose, in the opposite direction. When he had last entered the mead he was an inhabitant of the Froom valley; in forty-eight hours he had severed himself from that spot as completely as if he had never belonged to it. All that appertained to him in the Froom valley now was circumscribed by the portmanteau in his hand.
In making his preparations for departure he had unconsciously held a faint, foolish hope that she would communicate with him and make up their estrangement in some soft womanly way. But she had given no signal, and it was too evident to him that her latest mood had grown to be her fixed one, proving how well founded had been his impulse to set her free.
He entered the Sallows, found his way in the dark to the garden-door of the house, slipped under it a note to tell her of his departure, and explaining its true reason to be a consciousness of her growing feeling that he was an encumbrance and a humiliation. Of the direction of his journey and of the date of his return he said nothing.
His course now took him into the high road, which he pursued for some miles in a north-easterly direction, still spinning the thread of sad inferences, and asking himself why he should ever return. At daybreak he stood on the hill above Shottsford–Forum, and awaited a coach which passed about this time along that highway towards Melchester and London.
Some fifteen years after the date of the foregoing incidents, a man who had dwelt in far countries, and viewed many cities, arrived at Roy–Town, a roadside hamlet on the old western turnpike road, not five miles from Froom–Everard, and put up at the Buck’s Head, an isolated inn at that spot. He was still barely of middle age, but it could be seen that a haze of grey was settling upon the locks of his hair, and that his face had lost colour and curve, as if by exposure to bleaching climates and strange atmospheres, or from ailments incidental thereto. He seemed to observe little around him, by reason of the intrusion of his musings upon the scene. In truth Nicholas Long was just now the creature of old hopes and fears consequent upon his arrival — this man who once had not cared if his name were blotted out from that district. The evening light showed wistful lines which he could not smooth away by the worldling’s gloss of nonchalance that he had learnt to fling over his face.
The Buck’s Head was a somewhat unusual place for a man of this sort to choose as a house of sojourn in preference to some Casterbridge inn four miles further on. Before he left home it had been a lively old tavern at which High-flyers, and Heralds, and Tally-hoes had changed horses on their stages up and down the country; but now the house was rather cavernous and chilly, the stable-roofs were hollow-backed, the landlord was asthmatic, and the traffic gone.
He arrived in the afternoon, and when he had sent back the fly and was having a nondescript meal, he put a question to the waiting-maid with a mien of indifference.
‘Squire Everard, of Froom–Everard Manor, has been dead some years, I believe?’
She replied in the affirmative.
‘And are any of the family left there still?’
‘O no, bless you, sir! They sold the place years ago — Squire Everard’s son did — and went away. I’ve never heard where they went to. They came quite to nothing.’
‘Never heard anything of the young lady — the Squire’s daughter?’
‘No. You see ’twas before I came to these parts.’
When the waitress left the room, Nicholas pushed aside his plate and gazed out of the window. He was not going over into the Froom Valley altogether on Christine’s account, but she had greatly animated his motive in coming that way. Anyhow he would push on there now that he was so near, and not ask questions here where he was liable to be wrongly informed. The fundamental inquiry he had not ventured to make — whether Christine had married before the family went away. He had abstained because of an absurd dread of extinguishing hopeful surmise. That the Everards had left their old home was bad enough intelligence for one day.
Rising from the table he put on his hat and went out, ascending towards the upland which divided this district from his native vale. The first familiar feature that met his eye was a little spot on the distant sky — a clump of trees standing on a barrow which surmounted a yet more remote upland — a point where, in his childhood, he had believed people could stand and see America. He reached the further verge of the plateau on which he had entered. Ah, there was the valley — a greenish-grey stretch of colour — still looking placid and serene, as though it had not much missed him. If Christine was no longer there, why should he pause over it this evening? His uncle and aunt were dead, and tomorrow would be soon enough to inquire for remoter relatives. Thus, disinclined to go further, he turned to retrace his way to the inn.
In the backward path he now perceived the figure of a woman, who had been walking at a distance behind him; and as she drew nearer he began to be startled. Surely, despite the variations introduced into that figure by changing years, its ground-lines were those of Christine?
Nicholas had been sentimental enough to write to Christine immediately on landing at Southampton a day or two before this, addressing his letter at a venture to the old house, and merely telling her that he planned to reach the Roy–Town inn on the present afternoon. The news of the scattering of the Everards had dissipated his hope of hearing of her; but here she was.
So they met — there, alone, on the open down by a pond, just as if the meeting had been carefully arranged.
She threw up her veil. She was still beautiful, though the years had touched her; a little more matronly — much more homely. Or was it only that he was much less homely now — a man of the world — the sense of homeliness being relative? Her face had grown to be pre-eminently of the sort that would be called interesting. Her habiliments were of a demure and sober cast, though she was one who had used to dress so airily and so gaily. Years had laid on a few shadows too in this.
‘I received your letter,’ she said, when the momentary embarrassment of their first approach had passed. ‘And I thought I would walk across the hills today, as it was fine. I have just called at the inn, and they told me you were out. I was now on my way homeward.’
He hardly listened to this, though he intently gazed at her. ‘Christine,’ he said, ‘one word. Are you free?’
‘I— I am in a certain sense,’ she replied, colouring.
The announcement had a magical effect. The intervening time between past and present closed up for him, and moved by an impulse which he had combated for fifteen years, he seized her two hands and drew her towards him.
She started back, and became almost a mere acquaintance. ‘I have to tell you,’ she gasped, ‘that I have — been married.’
Nicholas’s rose-coloured dream was immediately toned down to a greyish tinge.
‘I did not marry till many years after you had left,’ she continued in the humble tones of one confessing to a crime. ‘Oh Nic,’ she cried reproachfully, ‘how could you stay away so long?’
‘Whom did you marry?’
‘I— ought to have expected it.’ He was going to add, ‘And is he dead?’ but he checked himself. Her dress unmistakably suggested widowhood; and she had said she was free.
‘I must now hasten home,’ said she. ‘I felt that, considering my shortcomings at our parting so many years ago, I owed you the initiative now.’
‘There is some of your old generosity in that. I’ll walk with you, if I may. Where are you living, Christine?’
‘In the same house, but not on the old conditions. I have part of it on lease; the farmer now tenanting the premises found the whole more than he wanted, and the owner allowed me to keep what rooms I chose. I am poor now, you know, Nicholas, and almost friendless. My brother sold the Froom–Everard estate when it came to him, and the person who bought it turned our home into a farmhouse. Till my father’s death my husband and I lived in the manor-house with him, so that I have never lived away from the spot.’
She was poor. That, and the change of name, sufficiently accounted for the inn-servant’s ignorance of her continued existence within the walls of her old home.
It was growing dusk, and he still walked with her. A woman’s head arose from the declivity before them, and as she drew nearer, Christine asked him to go back.
‘This is the wife of the farmer who shares the house,’ she said. ‘She is accustomed to come out and meet me whenever I walk far and am benighted. I am obliged to walk everywhere now.’
The farmer’s wife, seeing that Christine was not alone, paused in her advance, and Nicholas said, ‘Dear Christine, if you are obliged to do these things, I am not, and what wealth I can command you may command likewise. They say rolling stones gather no moss; but they gather dross sometimes. I was one of the pioneers to the gold-fields, you know, and made a sufficient fortune there for my wants. What is more, I kept it. When I had done this I was coming home, but hearing of my uncle’s death I changed my plan, travelled, speculated, and increased my fortune. Now, before we part: you remember you stood with me at the altar once, and therefore I speak with less preparation than I should otherwise use. Before we part then I ask, shall another again intrude between us? Or shall we complete the union we began?’
She trembled — just as she had done at that very minute of standing with him in the church, to which he had recalled her mind. ‘I will not enter into that now, dear Nicholas,’ she replied. ‘There will be more to talk of and consider first — more to explain, which it would have spoiled this meeting to have entered into now.’
‘Yes, yes; but —’
‘Further than the brief answer I first gave, Nic, don’t press me to-night. I still have the old affection for you, or I should not have sought you. Let that suffice for the moment.’
‘Very well, dear one. And when shall I call to see you?’
‘I will write and fix an hour. I will tell you everything of my history then.’
And thus they parted, Nicholas feeling that he had not come here fruitlessly. When she and her companion were out of sight he retraced his steps to Roy–Town, where he made himself as comfortable as he could in the deserted old inn of his boyhood’s days. He missed her companionship this evening more than he had done at any time during the whole fifteen years; and it was as though instead of separation there had been constant communion with her throughout that period. The tones of her voice had stirred his heart in a nook which had lain stagnant ever since he last heard them. They recalled the woman to whom he had once lifted his eyes as to a goddess. Her announcement that she had been another’s came as a little shock to him, and he did not now lift his eyes to her in precisely the same way as he had lifted them at first. But he forgave her for marrying Bellston; what could he expect after fifteen years?
He slept at Roy–Town that night, and in the morning there was a short note from her, repeating more emphatically her statement of the previous evening — that she wished to inform him clearly of her circumstances, and to calmly consider with him the position in which she was placed. Would he call upon her on Sunday afternoon, when she was sure to be alone?
‘Nic,’ she wrote on, ‘what a cosmopolite you are! I expected to find my old yeoman still; but I was quite awed in the presence of such a citizen of the world. Did I seem rusty and unpractised? Ah — you seemed so once to me!’
Tender playful words; the old Christine was in them. She said Sunday afternoon, and it was now only Saturday morning. He wished she had said today; that short revival of her image had vitalized to sudden heat feelings that had almost been stilled. Whatever she might have to explain as to her position — and it was awkwardly narrowed, no doubt — he could not give her up. Miss Everard or Mrs. Bellston, what mattered it? — she was the same Christine.
He did not go outside the inn all Saturday. He had no wish to see or do anything but to await the coming interview. So he smoked, and read the local newspaper of the previous week, and stowed himself in the chimney-corner. In the evening he felt that he could remain indoors no longer, and the moon being near the full, he started from the inn on foot in the same direction as that of yesterday, with the view of contemplating the old village and its precincts, and hovering round her house under the cloak of night.
With a stout stick in his hand he climbed over the five miles of upland in a comparatively short space of time. Nicholas had seen many strange lands and trodden many strange ways since he last walked that path, but as he trudged he seemed wonderfully like his old self, and had not the slightest difficulty in finding the way. In descending to the meads the streams perplexed him a little, some of the old foot-bridges having been removed; but he ultimately got across the larger water-courses, and pushed on to the village, avoiding her residence for the moment, lest she should encounter him, and think he had not respected the time of her appointment.
He found his way to the churchyard, and first ascertained where lay the two relations he had left alive at his departure; then he observed the gravestones of other inhabitants with whom he had been well acquainted, till by degrees he seemed to be in the society of all the elder Froom–Everard population, as he had known the place. Side by side as they had lived in his day here were they now. They had moved house in mass.
But no tomb of Mr. Bellston was visible, though, as he had lived at the manor-house, it would have been natural to find it here. In truth Nicholas was more anxious to discover that than anything, being curious to know how long he had been dead. Seeing from the glimmer of a light in the church that somebody was there cleaning for Sunday he entered, and looked round upon the walls as well as he could. But there was no monument to her husband, though one had been erected to the Squire.
Nicholas addressed the young man who was sweeping. ‘I don’t see any monument or tomb to the late Mr. Bellston?’
‘O no, sir; you won’t see that,’ said the young man drily.
‘Because he’s not buried here. He’s not Christian-buried anywhere, as far as we know. In short, perhaps he’s not buried at all; and between ourselves, perhaps he’s alive.’
Nicholas sank an inch shorter. ‘Ah,’ he answered.
‘Then you don’t know the peculiar circumstances, sir?’
‘I am a stranger here — as to late years.’
‘Mr. Bellston was a traveller — an explorer — it was his calling; you may have heard his name as such?’
‘I remember.’ Nicholas recalled the fact that this very bent of Mr. Bellston’s was the incentive to his own roaming.
‘Well, when he married he came and lived here with his wife and his wife’s father, and said he would travel no more. But after a time he got weary of biding quiet here, and weary of her — he was not a good husband to the young lady by any means — and he betook himself again to his old trick of roving — with her money. Away he went, quite out of the realm of human foot, into the bowels of Asia, and never was heard of more. He was murdered, it is said, but nobody knows; though as that was nine years ago he’s dead enough in principle, if not in corporation. His widow lives quite humble, for between her husband and her brother she’s left in very lean pasturage.’
Nicholas went back to the Buck’s Head without hovering round her dwelling. This then was the explanation which she had wanted to make. Not dead, but missing. How could he have expected that the first fair promise of happiness held out to him would remain untarnished? She had said that she was free; and legally she was free, no doubt. Moreover, from her tone and manner he felt himself justified in concluding that she would be willing to run the risk of a union with him, in the improbability of her husband’s existence. Even if that husband lived, his return was not a likely event, to judge from his character. A man who could spend her money on his own personal adventures would not be anxious to disturb her poverty after such a lapse of time.
Well, the prospect was not so unclouded as it had seemed. But could he, even now, give up Christine?
Two months more brought the year nearly to a close, and found Nicholas Long tenant of a spacious house in the market-town nearest to Froom–Everard. A man of means, genial character, and a bachelor, he was an object of great interest to his neighbours, and to his neighbours’ wives and daughters. But he took little note of this, and had made it his business to go twice a week, no matter what the weather, to the now farmhouse at Froom–Everard, a wing of which had been retained as the refuge of Christine. He always walked, to give no trouble in putting up a horse to a housekeeper whose staff was limited.
The two had put their heads together on the situation, had gone to a solicitor, had balanced possibilities, and had resolved to make the plunge of matrimony. ‘Nothing venture, nothing have,’ Christine had said, with some of her old audacity.
With almost gratuitous honesty they had let their intentions be widely known. Christine, it is true, had rather shrunk from publicity at first; but Nicholas argued that their boldness in this respect would have good results. With his friends he held that there was not the slightest probability of her being other than a widow, and a challenge to the missing man now, followed by no response, would stultify any unpleasant remarks which might be thrown at her after their union. To this end a paragraph was inserted in the Wessex papers, announcing that their marriage was proposed to be celebrated on such and such a day in December.
His periodic walks along the south side of the valley to visit her were among the happiest experiences of his life. The yellow leaves falling around him in the foreground, the well-watered meads on the left hand, and the woman he loved awaiting him at the back of the scene, promised a future of much serenity, as far as human judgment could foresee. On arriving, he would sit with her in the ‘parlour’ of the wing she retained, her general sitting-room, where the only relics of her early surroundings were an old clock from the other end of the house, and her own piano. Before it was quite dark they would stand, hand in hand, looking out of the window across the flat turf to the dark clump of trees which hid further view from their eyes.
‘Do you wish you were still mistress here, dear?’ he once said.
‘Not at all,’ said she cheerfully. ‘I have a good enough room, and a good enough fire, and a good enough friend. Besides, my latter days as mistress of the house were not happy ones, and they spoilt the place for me. It was a punishment for my faithlessness. Nic, you do forgive me? Really you do?’
The twenty-third of December, the eve of the wedding-day, had arrived at last in the train of such uneventful ones as these. Nicholas had arranged to visit her that day a little later than usual, and see that everything was ready with her for the morrow’s event and her removal to his house; for he had begun to look after her domestic affairs, and to lighten as much as possible the duties of her housekeeping.
He was to come to an early supper, which she had arranged to take the place of a wedding-breakfast next day — the latter not being feasible in her present situation. An hour or so after dark the wife of the farmer who lived in the other part of the house entered Christine’s parlour to lay the cloth.
‘What with getting the ham skinned, and the black-puddings hotted up,’ she said, ‘it will take me all my time before he’s here, if I begin this minute.’
‘I’ll lay the table myself,’ said Christine, jumping up. ‘Do you attend to the cooking.’
‘Thank you, ma’am. And perhaps ’tis no matter, seeing that it is the last night you’ll have to do such work. I knew this sort of life wouldn’t last long for ‘ee, being born to better things.’
‘It has lasted rather long, Mrs. Wake. And if he had not found me out it would have lasted all my days.’
‘But he did find you out.’
‘He did. And I’ll lay the cloth immediately.’
Mrs. Wake went back to the kitchen, and Christine began to bustle about. She greatly enjoyed preparing this table for Nicholas and herself with her own hands. She took artistic pleasure in adjusting each article to its position, as if half an inch error were a point of high importance. Finally she placed the two candles where they were to stand, and sat down by the fire.
Mrs. Wake re-entered and regarded the effect. ‘Why not have another candle or two, ma’am?’ she said. ‘‘Twould make it livelier. Say four.’
‘Very well,’ said Christine, and four candles were lighted. ‘Really,’ she added, surveying them, ‘I have been now so long accustomed to little economies that they look quite extravagant.’
‘Ah, you’ll soon think nothing of forty in his grand new house! Shall I bring in supper directly he comes, ma’am?’
‘No, not for half an hour; and, Mrs. Wake, you and Betsy are busy in the kitchen, I know; so when he knocks don’t disturb yourselves; I can let him in.’
She was again left alone, and, as it still wanted some time to Nicholas’s appointment, she stood by the fire, looking at herself in the glass over the mantel. Reflectively raising a lock of her hair just above her temple she uncovered a small scar. That scar had a history. The terrible temper of her late husband — those sudden moods of irascibility which had made even his friendly excitements look like anger — had once caused him to set that mark upon her with the bezel of a ring he wore. He declared that the whole thing was an accident. She was a woman, and kept her own opinion.
Christine then turned her back to the glass and scanned the table and the candles, shining one at each corner like types of the four Evangelists, and thought they looked too assuming — too confident. She glanced up at the clock, which stood also in this room, there not being space enough for it in the passage. It was nearly seven, and she expected Nicholas at half-past. She liked the company of this venerable article in her lonely life: its tickings and whizzings were a sort of conversation. It now began to strike the hour. At the end something grated slightly. Then, without any warning, the clock slowly inclined forward and fell at full length upon the floor.
The crash brought the farmer’s wife rushing into the room. Christine had well-nigh sprung out of her shoes. Mrs. Wake’s enquiry what had happened was answered by the evidence of her own eyes.
‘How did it occur?’ she said.
‘I cannot say; it was not firmly fixed, I suppose. Dear me, how sorry I am! My dear father’s hall-clock! And now I suppose it is ruined.’
Assisted by Mrs. Wake, she lifted the clock. Every inch of glass was, of course, shattered, but very little harm besides appeared to be done. They propped it up temporarily, though it would not go again.
Christine had soon recovered her composure, but she saw that Mrs. Wake was gloomy. ‘What does it mean, Mrs. Wake?’ she said. ‘Is it ominous?’
‘It is a sign of a violent death in the family.’
‘Don’t talk of it. I don’t believe such things; and don’t mention it to Mr. Long when he comes. He’s not in the family yet, you know.’
‘O no, it cannot refer to him,’ said Mrs. Wake musingly.
‘Some remote cousin, perhaps,’ observed Christine, no less willing to humour her than to get rid of a shapeless dread which the incident had caused in her own mind. ‘And — supper is almost ready, Mrs. Wake?’
‘In three-quarters of an hour.’
Mrs. Wake left the room, and Christine sat on. Though it still wanted fifteen minutes to the hour at which Nicholas had promised to be there, she began to grow impatient. After the accustomed ticking the dead silence was oppressive. But she had not to wait so long as she had expected; steps were heard approaching the door, and there was a knock.
Christine was already there to open it. The entrance had no lamp, but it was not particularly dark out of doors. She could see the outline of a man, and cried cheerfully, ‘You are early; it is very good of you.’
‘I beg pardon. It is not Mr. Bellston himself — only a messenger with his bag and great-coat. But he will be here soon.’
The voice was not the voice of Nicholas, and the intelligence was strange. ‘I— I don’t understand. Mr. Bellston?’ she faintly replied.
‘Yes, ma’am. A gentleman — a stranger to me — gave me these things at Casterbridge station to bring on here, and told me to say that Mr. Bellston had arrived there, and is detained for half-an-hour, but will be here in the course of the evening.’
She sank into a chair. The porter put a small battered portmanteau on the floor, the coat on a chair, and looking into the room at the spread table said, ‘If you are disappointed, ma’am, that your husband (as I s’pose he is) is not come, I can assure you he’ll soon be here. He’s stopped to get a shave, to my thinking, seeing he wanted it. What he said was that I could tell you he had heard the news in Ireland, and would have come sooner, his hand being forced; but was hindered crossing by the weather, having took passage in a sailing vessel. What news he meant he didn’t say.’
‘Ah, yes,’ she faltered. It was plain that the man knew nothing of her intended re-marriage.
Mechanically rising and giving him a shilling, she answered to his ‘good-night,’ and he withdrew, the beat of his footsteps lessening in the distance. She was alone; but in what a solitude.
Christine stood in the middle of the hall, just as the man had left her, in the gloomy silence of the stopped clock within the adjoining room, till she aroused herself, and turning to the portmanteau and great-coat brought them to the light of the candles, and examined them. The portmanteau bore painted upon it the initials ‘J. B.’ in white letters — the well-known initials of her husband.
She examined the great-coat. In the breast-pocket was an empty spirit flask, which she firmly fancied she recognized as the one she had filled many times for him when he was living at home with her.
She turned desultorily hither and thither, until she heard another tread without, and there came a second knocking at the door. She did not respond to it; and Nicholas — for it was he — thinking that he was not heard by reason of a concentration on tomorrow’s proceedings, opened the door softly, and came on to the door of her room, which stood unclosed, just as it had been left by the Casterbridge porter.
Nicholas uttered a blithe greeting, cast his eye round the parlour, which with its tall candles, blazing fire, snow-white cloth, and prettily-spread table, formed a cheerful spectacle enough for a man who had been walking in the dark for an hour.
‘My bride — almost, at last!’ he cried, encircling her with his arms.
Instead of responding, her figure became limp, frigid, heavy; her head fell back, and he found that she had fainted.
It was natural, he thought. She had had many little worrying matters to attend to, and but slight assistance. He ought to have seen more effectually to her affairs; the closeness of the event had over-excited her. Nicholas kissed her unconscious face — more than once, little thinking what news it was that had changed its aspect. Loth to call Mrs. Wake, he carried Christine to a couch and laid her down. This had the effect of reviving her. Nicholas bent and whispered in her ear, ‘Lie quiet, dearest, no hurry; and dream, dream, dream of happy days. It is only I. You will soon be better.’ He held her by the hand.
‘No, no, no!’ she said, with a stare. ‘O, how can this be?’
Nicholas was alarmed and perplexed, but the disclosure was not long delayed. When she had sat up, and by degrees made the stunning event known to him, he stood as if transfixed.
‘Ah — is it so?’ said he. Then, becoming quite meek, ‘And why was he so cruel as to — delay his return till now?’
She dutifully recited the explanation her husband had given her through the messenger; but her mechanical manner of telling it showed how much she doubted its truth. It was too unlikely that his arrival at such a dramatic moment should not be a contrived surprise, quite of a piece with his previous dealings towards her.
‘But perhaps it may be true — and he may have become kind now — not as he used to be,’ she faltered. ‘Yes, perhaps, Nicholas, he is an altered man — we’ll hope he is. I suppose I ought not to have listened to my legal advisers, and assumed his death so surely! Anyhow, I am roughly received back into — the right way!’
Nicholas burst out bitterly: ‘O what too, too honest fools we were! — to so court daylight upon our intention by putting that announcement in the papers! Why could we not have married privately, and gone away, so that he would never have known what had become of you, even if he had returned? Christine, he has done it to . . . But I’ll say no more. Of course we — might fly now.’
‘No, no; we might not,’ said she hastily.
‘Very well. But this is hard to bear! “When I looked for good then evil came unto me, and when I waited for light there came darkness.” So once said a sorely tried man in the land of Uz, and so say I now! . . . I wonder if he is almost here at this moment?’
She told him she supposed Bellston was approaching by the path across the fields, having sent on his great-coat, which he would not want walking.
‘And is this meal laid for him, or for me?’
‘It was laid for you.’
‘And it will be eaten by him?’
‘Christine, are you sure that he is come, or have you been sleeping over the fire and dreaming it?’
She pointed anew to the portmanteau with the initials ‘J. B.,’ and to the coat beside it.
‘Well, good-bye — good-bye! Curse that parson for not marrying us fifteen years ago!’
It is unnecessary to dwell further upon that parting. There are scenes wherein the words spoken do not even approximate to the level of the mental communion between the actors. Suffice it to say that part they did, and quickly; and Nicholas, more dead than alive, went out of the house homewards.
Why had he ever come back? During his absence he had not cared for Christine as he cared now. If he had been younger he might have felt tempted to descend into the meads instead of keeping along their edge. The Froom was down there, and he knew of quiet pools in that stream to which death would come easily. But he was too old to put an end to himself for such a reason as love; and another thought, too, kept him from seriously contemplating any desperate act. His affection for her was strongly protective, and in the event of her requiring a friend’s support in future troubles there was none but himself left in the world to afford it. So he walked on.
Meanwhile Christine had resigned herself to circumstances. A resolve to continue worthy of her history and of her family lent her heroism and dignity. She called Mrs. Wake, and explained to that worthy woman as much of what had occurred as she deemed necessary. Mrs. Wake was too amazed to reply; she retreated slowly, her lips parted; till at the door she said with a dry mouth, ‘And the beautiful supper, ma’am?’
‘Serve it when he comes.’
‘When Mr. Bellston — yes, ma’am, I will.’ She still stood gazing, as if she could hardly take in the order.
‘That will do, Mrs. Wake. I am much obliged to you for all your kindness.’ And Christine was left alone again, and then she wept.
She sat down and waited. That awful silence of the stopped clock began anew, but she did not mind it now. She was listening for a footfall in a state of mental tensity which almost took away from her the power of motion. It seemed to her that the natural interval for her husband’s journey thither must have expired; but she was not sure, and waited on.
Mrs. Wake again came in. ‘You have not rung for supper —’
‘He is not yet come, Mrs. Wake. If you want to go to bed, bring in the supper and set it on the table. It will be nearly as good cold. Leave the door unbarred.’
Mrs. Wake did as was suggested, made up the fire, and went away. Shortly afterwards Christine heard her retire to her chamber. But Christine still sat on, and still her husband postponed his entry.
She aroused herself once or twice to freshen the fire, but was ignorant how the night was going. Her watch was upstairs and she did not make the effort to go up to consult it. In her seat she continued; and still the supper waited, and still he did not come.
At length she was so nearly persuaded that the arrival of his things must have been a dream after all, that she again went over to them, felt them, and examined them. His they unquestionably were; and their forwarding by the porter had been quite natural. She sighed and sat down again.
Presently she fell into a doze, and when she again became conscious she found that the four candles had burnt into their sockets and gone out. The fire still emitted a feeble shine. Christine did not take the trouble to get more candles, but stirred the fire and sat on.
After a long period she heard a creaking of the chamber floor and stairs at the other end of the house, and knew that the farmer’s family were getting up. By-and-by Mrs. Wake entered the room, candle in hand, bouncing open the door in her morning manner, obviously without any expectation of finding a person there.
‘Lord-a-mercy! What, sitting here again, ma’am?’
‘Yes, I am sitting here still.’
‘You’ve been there ever since last night?’
‘He’s not come.’
‘Well, he won’t come at this time o’ morning,’ said the farmer’s wife. ‘Do ‘ee get on to bed, ma’am. You must be shrammed to death!’
It occurred to Christine now that possibly her husband had thought better of obtruding himself upon her company within an hour of revealing his existence to her, and had decided to pay a more formal visit next day. She therefore adopted Mrs. Wake’s suggestion and retired.
Nicholas had gone straight home, neither speaking to nor seeing a soul. From that hour a change seemed to come over him. He had ever possessed a full share of self-consciousness; he had been readily piqued, had shown an unusual dread of being personally obtrusive. But now his sense of self, as an individual provoking opinion, appeared to leave him. When, therefore, after a day or two of seclusion, he came forth again, and the few acquaintances he had formed in the town condoled with him on what had happened, and pitied his haggard looks, he did not shrink from their regard as he would have done formerly, but took their sympathy as it would have been accepted by a child.
It reached his ears that Bellston had not appeared on the evening of his arrival at any hotel in the town or neighbourhood, or entered his wife’s house at all. ‘That’s a part of his cruelty,’ thought Nicholas. And when two or three days had passed, and still no account came to him of Bellston having joined her, he ventured to set out for Froom–Everard.
Christine was so shaken that she was obliged to receive him as she lay on a sofa, beside the square table which was to have borne their evening feast. She fixed her eyes wistfully upon him, and smiled a sad smile.
‘He has not come?’ said Nicholas under his breath.
‘He has not.’
Then Nicholas sat beside her, and they talked on general topics merely like saddened old friends. But they could not keep away the subject of Bellston, their voices dropping as it forced its way in. Christine, no less than Nicholas, knowing her husband’s character, inferred that, having stopped her game, as he would have phrased it, he was taking things leisurely, and, finding nothing very attractive in her limited mode of living, was meaning to return to her only when he had nothing better to do.
The bolt which laid low their hopes had struck so recently that they could hardly look each other in the face when speaking that day. But when a week or two had passed, and all the horizon still remained as vacant of Bellston as before, Nicholas and she could talk of the event with calm wonderment. Why had he come, to go again like this?
And then there set in a period of resigned surmise, during which
So like, so very like, was day to day,
that to tell of one of them is to tell of all. Nicholas would arrive between three and four in the afternoon, a faint trepidation influencing his walk as he neared her door. He would knock; she would always reply in person, having watched for him from the window. Then he would whisper —‘He has not come?’
‘He has not,’ she would say.
Nicholas would enter then, and she being ready bonneted, they would walk into the Sallows together as far as to the spot which they had frequently made their place of appointment in their youthful days. A plank bridge, which Bellston had caused to be thrown over the stream during his residence with her in the manor-house, was now again removed, and all was just the same as in Nicholas’s time, when he had been accustomed to wade across on the edge of the cascade and come up to her like a merman from the deep. Here on the felled trunk, which still lay rotting in its old place, they would now sit, gazing at the descending sheet of water, with its never-ending sarcastic hiss at their baffled attempts to make themselves one flesh. Returning to the house they would sit down together to tea, after which, and the confidential chat that accompanied it, he walked home by the declining light. This proceeding became as periodic as an astronomical recurrence. Twice a week he came — all through that winter, all through the spring following, through the summer, through the autumn, the next winter, the next year, and the next, till an appreciable span of human life had passed by. Bellston still tarried.
Years and years Nic walked that way, at this interval of three days, from his house in the neighbouring town; and in every instance the aforesaid order of things was customary; and still on his arrival the form of words went on —‘He has not come?’
‘He has not.’
So they grew older. The dim shape of that third one stood continually between them; they could not displace it; neither, on the other hand, could it effectually part them. They were in close communion, yet not indissolubly united; lovers, yet never growing cured of love. By the time that the fifth year of Nic’s visiting had arrived, on about the five-hundredth occasion of his presence at her tea-table, he noticed that the bleaching process which had begun upon his own locks was also spreading to hers. He told her so, and they laughed. Yet she was in good health: a condition of suspense, which would have half-killed a man, had been endured by her without complaint, and even with composure.
One day, when these years of abeyance had numbered seven, they had strolled as usual as far as the waterfall, whose faint roar formed a sort of calling voice sufficient in the circumstances to direct their listlessness. Pausing there, he looked up at her face and said, ‘Why should we not try again, Christine? We are legally at liberty to do so now. Nothing venture nothing have.’
But she would not. Perhaps a little primness of idea was by this time ousting the native daring of Christine. ‘What he has done once he can do twice,’ she said. ‘He is not dead, and if we were to marry he would say we had “forced his hand,” as he said before, and duly reappear.’
Some years after, when Christine was about fifty, and Nicholas fifty-three, a new trouble of a minor kind arrived. He found an inconvenience in traversing the distance between their two houses, particularly in damp weather, the years he had spent in trying climates abroad having sown the seeds of rheumatism, which made a journey undesirable on inclement days, even in a carriage. He told her of this new difficulty, as he did of everything.
‘If you could live nearer,’ suggested she.
Unluckily there was no house near. But Nicholas, though not a millionaire, was a man of means; he obtained a small piece of ground on lease at the nearest spot to her home that it could be so obtained, which was on the opposite brink of the Froom, this river forming the boundary of the Froom–Everard manor; and here he built a cottage large enough for his wants. This took time, and when he got into it he found its situation a great comfort to him. He was not more than five hundred yards from her now, and gained a new pleasure in feeling that all sounds which greeted his ears, in the day or in the night, also fell upon hers — the caw of a particular rook, the voice of a neighbouring nightingale, the whistle of a local breeze, or the purl of the fall in the meadows, whose rush was a material rendering of Time’s ceaseless scour over themselves, wearing them away without uniting them.
Christine’s missing husband was taking shape as a myth among the surrounding residents; but he was still believed in as corporeally imminent by Christine herself, and also, in a milder degree, by Nicholas. For a curious unconsciousness of the long lapse of time since his revelation of himself seemed to affect the pair. There had been no passing events to serve as chronological milestones, and the evening on which she had kept supper waiting for him still loomed out with startling nearness in their retrospects.
In the seventeenth pensive year of this their parallel march towards the common bourne, a labourer came in a hurry one day to Nicholas’s house and brought strange tidings. The present owner of Froom–Everard — a non-resident — had been improving his property in sundry ways, and one of these was by dredging the stream which, in the course of years, had become choked with mud and weeds in its passage through the Sallows. The process necessitated a reconstruction of the waterfall. When the river had been pumped dry for this purpose, the skeleton of a man had been found jammed among the piles supporting the edge of the fall. Every particle of his flesh and clothing had been eaten by fishes or abraded to nothing by the water, but the relics of a gold watch remained, and on the inside of the case was engraved the name of the maker of her husband’s watch, which she well remembered.
Nicholas, deeply agitated, hastened down to the place and examined the remains attentively, afterwards going across to Christine, and breaking the discovery to her. She would not come to view the skeleton, which lay extended on the grass, not a finger or toe-bone missing, so neatly had the aquatic operators done their work. Conjecture was directed to the question how Bellston had got there; and conjecture alone could give an explanation.
It was supposed that, on his way to call upon her, he had taken a short cut through the grounds, with which he was naturally very familiar, and coming to the fall under the trees had expected to find there the plank which, during his occupancy of the premises with Christine and her father, he had placed there for crossing into the meads on the other side instead of wading across as Nicholas had done. Before discovering its removal he had probably overbalanced himself, and was thus precipitated into the cascade, the piles beneath the descending current wedging him between them like the prongs of a pitchfork, and effectually preventing the rising of his body, over which the weeds grew. Such was the reasonable supposition concerning the discovery; but proof was never forthcoming.
‘To think,’ said Nicholas, when the remains had been decently interred, and he was again sitting with Christine — though not beside the waterfall —‘to think how we visited him! How we sat over him, hours and hours, gazing at him, bewailing our fate, when all the time he was ironically hissing at us from the spot, in an unknown tongue, that we could marry if we chose!’
She echoed the sentiment with a sigh.
‘I have strange fancies,’ she said. ‘I suppose it must have been my husband who came back, and not some other man.’
Nicholas felt that there was little doubt. ‘Besides — the skeleton,’ he said.
‘Yes . . . If it could not have been another person’s — but no, of course it was he.’
‘You might have married me on the day we had fixed, and there would have been no impediment. You would now have been seventeen years my wife, and we might have had tall sons and daughters.’
‘It might have been so,’ she murmured.
‘Well — is it still better late than never?’
The question was one which had become complicated by the increasing years of each. Their wills were somewhat enfeebled now, their hearts sickened of tender enterprise by hope too long deferred. Having postponed the consideration of their course till a year after the interment of Bellston, each seemed less disposed than formerly to take it up again.
‘Is it worth while, after so many years?’ she said to him. ‘We are fairly happy as we are — perhaps happier than we should be in any other relation, seeing what old people we have grown. The weight is gone from our lives; the shadow no longer divides us: then let us be joyful together as we are, dearest Nic, in the days of our vanity; and
With mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come.’
He fell in with these views of hers to some extent. But occasionally he ventured to urge her to reconsider the case, though he spoke not with the fervour of his earlier years.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55