I lately had a melancholy experience (said the gentleman who is answerable for the truth of this story). It was that of going over a doomed house with whose outside aspect I had long been familiar — a house, that is, which by reason of age and dilapidation was to be pulled down during the following week. Some of the thatch, brown and rotten as the gills of old mushrooms, had, indeed, been removed before I walked over the building. Seeing that it was only a very small house — which is usually called a ‘cottage-residence’— situated in a remote hamlet, and that it was not more than a hundred years old, if so much, I was led to think in my progress through the hollow rooms, with their cracked walls and sloping floors, what an exceptional number of abrupt family incidents had taken place therein — to reckon only those which had come to my own knowledge. And no doubt there were many more of which I had never heard.
It stood at the top of a garden stretching down to the lane or street that ran through a hermit-group of dwellings in Mellstock parish. From a green gate at the lower entrance, over which the thorn hedge had been shaped to an arch by constant clippings, a gravel path ascended between the box edges of once trim raspberry, strawberry, and vegetable plots, towards the front door. This was in colour an ancient and bleached green that could be rubbed off with the finger, and it bore a small long-featured brass knocker covered with verdigris in its crevices. For some years before this eve of demolition the homestead had degenerated, and been divided into two tenements to serve as cottages for farm labourers; but in its prime it had indisputable claim to be considered neat, pretty, and genteel.
The variety of incidents above alluded to was mainly owing to the nature of the tenure, whereby the place had been occupied by families not quite of the kind customary in such spots — people whose circumstances, position, or antecedents were more or less of a critical happy-go-lucky cast. And of these residents the family whose term comprised the story I wish to relate was that of Mr. Jacob Paddock the market-gardener, who dwelt there for some years with his wife and grown-up daughter.
An evident commotion was agitating the premises, which jerked busy sounds across the front plot, resembling those of a disturbed hive. If a member of the household appeared at the door it was with a countenance of abstraction and concern.
Evening began to bend over the scene; and the other inhabitants of the hamlet came out to draw water, their common well being in the public road opposite the garden and house of the Paddocks. Having wound up their bucketsfull respectively they lingered, and spoke significantly together. From their words any casual listener might have gathered information of what had occurred.
The woodman who lived nearest the site of the story told most of the tale. Selina, the daughter of the Paddocks opposite, had been surprised that afternoon by receiving a letter from her once intended husband, then a corporal, but now a sergeant-major of dragoons, whom she had hitherto supposed to be one of the slain in the Battle of the Alma two or three years before.
‘She picked up wi’en against her father’s wish, as we know, and before he got his stripes,’ their informant continued. ‘Not but that the man was as hearty a feller as you’d meet this side o’ London. But Jacob, you see, wished her to do better, and one can understand it. However, she was determined to stick to him at that time; and for what happened she was not much to blame, so near as they were to matrimony when the war broke out and spoiled all.’
‘Even the very pig had been killed for the wedding,’ said a woman, ‘and the barrel o’ beer ordered in. O, the man meant honourable enough. But to be off in two days to fight in a foreign country —’twas natural of her father to say they should wait till he got back.’
‘And he never came,’ murmured one in the shade.
‘The war ended but her man never turned up again. She was not sure he was killed, but was too proud, or too timid, to go and hunt for him.’
‘One reason why her father forgave her when he found out how matters stood was, as he said plain at the time, that he liked the man, and could see that he meant to act straight. So the old folks made the best of what they couldn’t mend, and kept her there with ’em, when some wouldn’t. Time has proved seemingly that he did mean to act straight, now that he has writ to her that he’s coming. She’d have stuck to him all through the time, ’tis my belief; if t’other hadn’t come along.’
‘At the time of the courtship,’ resumed the woodman, ‘the regiment was quartered in Casterbridge Barracks, and he and she got acquainted by his calling to buy a penn’orth of rathe-ripes off that tree yonder in her father’s orchard — though ’twas said he seed her over hedge as well as the apples. He declared ’twas a kind of apple he much fancied; and he called for a penn’orth every day till the tree was cleared. It ended in his calling for her.’
‘’Twas a thousand pities they didn’t jine up at once and ha’ done wi’ it.
‘Well; better late than never, if so be he’ll have her now. But, Lord, she’d that faith in ‘en that she’d no more belief that he was alive, when a’ didn’t come, than that the undermost man in our churchyard was alive. She’d never have thought of another but for that — O no!’
‘’Tis awkward, altogether, for her now.’
‘Still she hadn’t married wi’ the new man. Though to be sure she would have committed it next week, even the licence being got, they say, for she’d have no banns this time, the first being so unfortunate.’
‘Perhaps the sergeant-major will think he’s released, and go as he came.’
‘O, not as I reckon. Soldiers bain’t particular, and she’s a tidy piece o’ furniture still. What will happen is that she’ll have her soldier, and break off with the master-wheelwright, licence or no — daze me if she won’t.’
In the progress of these desultory conjectures the form of another neighbour arose in the gloom. She nodded to the people at the well, who replied ‘G’d night, Mrs. Stone,’ as she passed through Mr. Paddock’s gate towards his door. She was an intimate friend of the latter’s household, and the group followed her with their eyes up the path and past the windows, which were now lighted up by candles inside.
Mrs. Stone paused at the door, knocked, and was admitted by Selina’s mother, who took her visitor at once into the parlour on the left hand, where a table was partly spread for supper. On the ‘beaufet’ against the wall stood probably the only object which would have attracted the eye of a local stranger in an otherwise ordinarily furnished room, a great plum-cake guarded as if it were a curiosity by a glass shade of the kind seen in museums — square, with a wooden back like those enclosing stuffed specimens of rare feather or fur. This was the mummy of the cake intended in earlier days for the wedding-feast of Selina and the soldier, which had been religiously and lovingly preserved by the former as a testimony to her intentional respectability in spite of an untoward subsequent circumstance, which will be mentioned. This relic was now as dry as a brick, and seemed to belong to a pre-existent civilization. Till quite recently, Selina had been in the habit of pausing before it daily, and recalling the accident whose consequences had thrown a shadow over her life ever since — that of which the water-drawers had spoken — the sudden news one morning that the Route had come for the —— th Dragoons, two days only being the interval before departure; the hurried consultation as to what should be done, the second time of asking being past but not the third; and the decision that it would be unwise to solemnize matrimony in such haphazard circumstances, even if it were possible, which was doubtful.
Before the fire the young woman in question was now seated on a low stool, in the stillness of reverie, and a toddling boy played about the floor around her.
‘Ah, Mrs. Stone!’ said Selina, rising slowly. ‘How kind of you to come in. You’ll bide to supper? Mother has told you the strange news, of course?’
‘No. But I heard it outside, that is, that you’d had a letter from Mr. Clark — Sergeant–Major Clark, as they say he is now — and that he’s coming to make it up with ‘ee.’
‘Yes; coming to-night — all the way from the north of England where he’s quartered. I don’t know whether I’m happy or — frightened at it. Of course I always believed that if he was alive he’d come and keep his solemn vow to me. But when it is printed that a man is killed — what can you think?’
‘It was printed?’
‘Why, yes. After the Battle of the Alma the book of the names of the killed and wounded was nailed up against Casterbridge Town Hall door. ’Twas on a Saturday, and I walked there o’ purpose to read and see for myself; for I’d heard that his name was down. There was a crowd of people round the book, looking for the names of relations; and I can mind that when they saw me they made way for me — knowing that we’d been just going to be married — and that, as you may say, I belonged to him. Well, I reached up my arm, and turned over the farrels of the book, and under the “killed” I read his surname, but instead of “John” they’d printed “James,” and I thought ’twas a mistake, and that it must be he. Who could have guessed there were two nearly of one name in one regiment.’
‘Well — he’s coming to finish the wedding of ‘ee as may be said; so never mind, my dear. All’s well that ends well.’
‘That’s what he seems to say. But then he has not heard yet about Mr. Miller; and that’s what rather terrifies me. Luckily my marriage with him next week was to have been by licence, and not banns, as in John’s case; and it was not so well known on that account. Still, I don’t know what to think.’
‘Everything seems to come just ‘twixt cup and lip with ‘ee, don’t it now, Miss Paddock. Two weddings broke off —’tis odd! How came you to accept Mr. Miller, my dear?’
‘He’s been so good and faithful! Not minding about the child at all; for he knew the rights of the story. He’s dearly fond o’ Johnny, you know — just as if ’twere his own — isn’t he, my duck? Do Mr. Miller love you or don’t he?’
‘Iss! An’ I love Mr. Miller,’ said the toddler.
‘Well, you see, Mrs. Stone, he said he’d make me a comfortable home; and thinking ‘twould be a good thing for Johnny, Mr. Miller being so much better off than me, I agreed at last, just as a widow might — which is what I have always felt myself; ever since I saw what I thought was John’s name printed there. I hope John will forgive me!’
‘So he will forgive ‘ee, since ’twas no manner of wrong to him. He ought to have sent ‘ee a line, saying ’twas another man.’
Selina’s mother entered. ‘We’ve not known of this an hour, Mrs. Stone,’ she said. ‘The letter was brought up from Lower Mellstock Post-office by one of the school children, only this afternoon. Mr. Miller was coming here this very night to settle about the wedding doings. Hark! Is that your father? Or is it Mr. Miller already come?’
The footsteps entered the porch; there was a brushing on the mat, and the door of the room sprung back to disclose a rubicund man about thirty years of age, of thriving master-mechanic appearance and obviously comfortable temper. On seeing the child, and before taking any notice whatever of the elders, the comer made a noise like the crowing of a cock and flapped his arms as if they were wings, a method of entry which had the unqualified admiration of Johnny.
‘Yes — it is he,’ said Selina constrainedly advancing.
‘What — were you all talking about me, my dear?’ said the genial young man when he had finished his crowing and resumed human manners. ‘Why what’s the matter,’ he went on. ‘You look struck all of a heap.’ Mr. Miller spread an aspect of concern over his own face, and drew a chair up to the fire.
‘O mother, would you tell Mr. Miller, if he don’t know?’
‘Mister Miller! and going to be married in six days!’ he interposed.
‘Ah — he don’t know it yet!’ murmured Mrs. Paddock.
‘Well — John Clark — now Sergeant–Major Clark — wasn’t shot at Alma after all. ’Twas another of almost the same name.’
‘Now that’s interesting! There were several cases like that.’
‘And he’s home again; and he’s coming here to-night to see her.’
‘Whatever shall I say, that he may not be offended with what I’ve done?’ interposed Selina.
‘But why should it matter if he be?’
‘O! I must agree to be his wife if he forgives me — of course I must.’
‘Must! But why not say nay, Selina, even if he do forgive ‘ee?’
‘O no! How can I without being wicked? You were very very kind, Mr. Miller, to ask me to have you; no other man would have done it after what had happened; and I agreed, even though I did not feel half so warm as I ought. Yet it was entirely owing to my believing him in the grave, as I knew that if he were not he would carry out his promise; and this shows that I was right in trusting him.’
‘Yes . . . He must be a goodish sort of fellow,’ said Mr. Miller, for a moment so impressed with the excellently faithful conduct of the sergeant-major of dragoons that he disregarded its effect upon his own position. He sighed slowly and added, ‘Well, Selina, ’tis for you to say. I love you, and I love the boy; and there’s my chimney-corner and sticks o’ furniture ready for ‘ee both.’
‘Yes, I know! But I mustn’t hear it any more now,’ murmured Selina quickly. ‘John will be here soon. I hope he’ll see how it all was when I tell him. If so be I could have written it to him it would have been better.’
‘You think he doesn’t know a single word about our having been on the brink o’t. But perhaps it’s the other way — he’s heard of it and that may have brought him.
‘Ah — perhaps he has!’ she said brightening. ‘And already forgives me.’
‘If not, speak out straight and fair, and tell him exactly how it fell out. If he’s a man he’ll see it.’
‘O he’s a man true enough. But I really do think I shan’t have to tell him at all, since you’ve put it to me that way!’
As it was now Johnny’s bedtime he was carried upstairs, and when Selina came down again her mother observed with some anxiety, ‘I fancy Mr. Clark must be here soon if he’s coming; and that being so, perhaps Mr. Miller wouldn’t mind — wishing us good-night! since you are so determined to stick to your sergeant-major.’ A little bitterness bubbled amid the closing words. ‘It would be less awkward, Mr. Miller not being here — if he will allow me to say it.’
‘To be sure; to be sure,’ the master-wheelwright exclaimed with instant conviction, rising alertly from his chair. ‘Lord bless my soul,’ he said, taking up his hat and stick, ‘and we to have been married in six days! But Selina — you’re right. You do belong to the child’s father since he’s alive. I’ll try to make the best of it.’
Before the generous Miller had got further there came a knock to the door accompanied by the noise of wheels.
‘I thought I heard something driving up!’ said Mrs Paddock.
They heard Mr. Paddock, who had been smoking in the room opposite, rise and go to the door, and in a moment a voice familiar enough to Selina was audibly saying, ‘At last I am here again — not without many interruptions! How is it with ‘ee, Mr. Paddock? And how is she? Thought never to see me again, I suppose?’
A step with a clink of spurs in it struck upon the entry floor.
‘Danged if I bain’t catched!’ murmured Mr. Miller, forgetting company-speech. ‘Never mind — I may as well meet him here as elsewhere; and I should like to see the chap, and make friends with en, as he seems one o’ the right sort.’ He returned to the fireplace just as the sergeant-major was ushered in.
He was a good specimen of the long-service soldier of those days; a not unhandsome man, with a certain undemonstrative dignity, which some might have said to be partly owing to the stiffness of his uniform about his neck, the high stock being still worn. He was much stouter than when Selina had parted from him. Although she had not meant to be demonstrative she ran across to him directly she saw him, and he held her in his arms and kissed her.
Then in much agitation she whispered something to him, at which he seemed to be much surprised.
‘He’s just put to bed,’ she continued. ‘You can go up and see him. I knew you’d come if you were alive! But I had quite gi’d you up for dead. You’ve been home in England ever since the war ended?’
‘Why didn’t you come sooner?’
‘That’s just what I ask myself! Why was I such a sappy as not to hurry here the first day I set foot on shore! Well, who’d have thought it — you are as pretty as ever!’
He relinquished her to peep upstairs a little way, where, by looking through the ballusters, he could see Johnny’s cot just within an open door. On his stepping down again Mr. Miller was preparing to depart.
‘Now, what’s this? I am sorry to see anybody going the moment I’ve come,’ expostulated the sergeant-major. ‘I thought we might make an evening of it. There’s a nine gallon cask o’ “Phoenix” beer outside in the trap, and a ham, and half a rawmil’ cheese; for I thought you might be short o’ forage in a lonely place like this; and it struck me we might like to ask in a neighbour or two. But perhaps it would be taking a liberty?’
‘O no, not at all,’ said Mr. Paddock, who was now in the room, in a judicial measured manner. ‘Very thoughtful of ‘ee, only ’twas not necessary, for we had just laid in an extry stock of eatables and drinkables in preparation for the coming event.’
‘’Twas very kind, upon my heart,’ said the soldier, ‘to think me worth such a jocund preparation, since you could only have got my letter this morning.’
Selina gazed at her father to stop him, and exchanged embarrassed glances with Miller. Contrary to her hopes Sergeant–Major Clark plainly did not know that the preparations referred to were for something quite other than his own visit.
The movement of the horse outside, and the impatient tapping of a whip-handle upon the vehicle reminded them that Clark’s driver was still in waiting. The provisions were brought into the house, and the cart dismissed. Miller, with very little pressure indeed, accepted an invitation to supper, and a few neighbours were induced to come in to make up a cheerful party.
During the laying of the meal, and throughout its continuance, Selina, who sat beside her first intended husband, tried frequently to break the news to him of her engagement to the other — now terminated so suddenly, and so happily for her heart, and her sense of womanly virtue. But the talk ran entirely upon the late war; and though fortified by half a horn of the strong ale brought by the sergeant-major she decided that she might have a better opportunity when supper was over of revealing the situation to him in private.
Having supped, Clark leaned back at ease in his chair and looked around. ‘We used sometimes to have a dance in that other room after supper, Selina dear, I recollect. We used to clear out all the furniture into this room before beginning. Have you kept up such goings on?’
‘No, not at all!’ said his sweetheart, sadly.
‘We were not unlikely to revive it in a few days,’ said Mr. Paddock. ‘But, howsomever, there’s seemingly many a slip, as the saying is.’
‘Yes, I’ll tell John all about that by and by!’ interposed Selina; at which, perceiving that the secret which he did not like keeping was to be kept even yet, her father held his tongue with some show of testiness.
The subject of a dance having been broached, to put the thought in practice was the feeling of all. Soon after the tables and chairs were borne from the opposite room to this by zealous hands, and two of the villagers sent home for a fiddle and tambourine, when the majority began to tread a measure well known in that secluded vale. Selina naturally danced with the sergeant-major, not altogether to her father’s satisfaction, and to the real uneasiness of her mother, both of whom would have preferred a postponement of festivities till the rashly anticipated relationship between their daughter and Clark in the past had been made fact by the church’s ordinances. They did not, however, express a positive objection, Mr. Paddock remembering, with self-reproach, that it was owing to his original strongly expressed disapproval of Selina’s being a soldier’s wife that the wedding had been delayed, and finally hindered — with worse consequences than were expected; and ever since the misadventure brought about by his government he had allowed events to steer their own courses.
‘My tails will surely catch in your spurs, John!’ murmured the daughter of the house, as she whirled around upon his arm with the rapt soul and look of a somnambulist. ‘I didn’t know we should dance, or I would have put on my other frock.’
‘I’ll take care, my love. We’ve danced here before. Do you think your father objects to me now? I’ve risen in rank. I fancy he’s still a little against me.’
‘He has repented, times enough.’
‘And so have I! If I had married you then ‘twould have saved many a misfortune. I have sometimes thought it might have been possible to rush the ceremony through somehow before I left; though we were only in the second asking, were we? And even if I had come back straight here when we returned from the Crimea, and married you then, how much happier I should have been!’
‘Dear John, to say that! Why didn’t you?’
‘O— dilatoriness and want of thought, and a fear of facing your father after so long. I was in hospital a great while, you know. But how familiar the place seems again! What’s that I saw on the beaufet in the other room? It never used to be there. A sort of withered corpse of a cake — not an old bride-cake surely?’
‘Yes, John, ours. ’Tis the very one that was made for our wedding three years ago.’
‘Sakes alive! Why, time shuts up together, and all between then and now seems not to have been! What became of that wedding-gown that they were making in this room, I remember — a bluish, whitish, frothy thing?’
‘I have that too.’
‘Really! . . . Why, Selina —’
‘Why not put it on now?’
‘Wouldn’t it seem —. And yet, O how I should like to! It would remind them all, if we told them what it was, how we really meant to be married on that bygone day!’ Her eyes were again laden with wet.
‘Yes . . . The pity that we didn’t — the pity!’ Moody mournfulness seemed to hold silent awhile one not naturally taciturn. ‘Well — will you?’ he said.
‘I will — the next dance, if mother don’t mind.’
Accordingly, just before the next figure was formed, Selina disappeared, and speedily came downstairs in a creased and box-worn, but still airy and pretty, muslin gown, which was indeed the very one that had been meant to grace her as a bride three years before.
‘It is dreadfully old-fashioned,’ she apologized.
‘Not at all. What a grand thought of mine! Now, let’s to’t again.’
She explained to some of them, as he led her to the second dance, what the frock had been meant for, and that she had put it on at his request. And again athwart and around the room they went.
‘You seem the bride!’ he said.
‘But I couldn’t wear this gown to be married in now!’ she replied, ecstatically, ‘or I shouldn’t have put it on and made it dusty. It is really too old-fashioned, and so folded and fretted out, you can’t think. That was with my taking it out so many times to look at. I have never put it on — never — till now!’
‘Selina, I am thinking of giving up the army. Will you emigrate with me to New Zealand? I’ve an uncle out there doing well, and he’d soon help me to making a larger income. The English army is glorious, but it ain’t altogether enriching.’
‘Of course, anywhere that you decide upon. Is it healthy there for Johnny?’
‘A lovely climate. And I shall never be happy in England . . . Aha!’ he concluded again, with a bitterness of unexpected strength, ‘would to Heaven I had come straight back here!’
As the dance brought round one neighbour after another the re-united pair were thrown into juxtaposition with Bob Heartall among the rest who had been called in; one whose chronic expression was that he carried inside him a joke on the point of bursting with its own vastness. He took occasion now to let out a little of its quality, shaking his head at Selina as he addressed her in an undertone —
‘This is a bit of a topper to the bridegroom, ho ho! ’Twill teach en the liberty you’ll expect when you’ve married en!’
‘What does he mean by a “topper,”’ the sergeant-major asked, who, not being of local extraction, despised the venerable local language, and also seemed to suppose ‘bridegroom’ to be an anticipatory name for himself. ‘I only hope I shall never be worse treated than you’ve treated me to-night!’
Selina looked frightened. ‘He didn’t mean you, dear,’ she said as they moved on. ‘We thought perhaps you knew what had happened, owing to your coming just at this time. Had you — heard anything about — what I intended?’
‘Not a breath — how should I— away up in Yorkshire? It was by the merest accident that I came just at this date to make peace with you for my delay.’
‘I was engaged to be married to Mr. Bartholomew Miller. That’s what it is! I would have let ‘ee know by letter, but there was no time, only hearing from ‘ee this afternoon . . . You won’t desert me for it, will you, John? Because, as you know, I quite supposed you dead, and — and —’ Her eyes were full of tears of trepidation, and he might have felt a sob heaving within her.
The soldier was silent during two or three double bars of the tune. ‘When were you to have been married to the said Mr. Bartholomew Miller?’ he inquired.
‘Next week — O yes — just the same as it was with you and me. There’s a strange fate of interruption hanging over me, I sometimes think! He had bought the licence, which I preferred so that it mightn’t be like — ours. But it made no difference to the fate of it.’
‘Had bought the licence! The devil!’
‘Don’t be angry, dear John. I didn’t know!’
‘No, no, I’m not angry.’
‘It was so kind of him, considering!’
‘Yes . . . I see, of course, how natural your action was — never thinking of seeing me any more! Is it the Mr. Miller who is in this dance?’
Clark glanced round upon Bartholomew and was silent again, for some little while, and she stole a look at him, to find that he seemed changed. ‘John, you look ill!’ she almost sobbed. ‘‘Tisn’t me, is it?’
‘O dear, no. Though I hadn’t, somehow, expected it. I can’t find fault with you for a moment — and I don’t . . . This is a deuce of a long dance, don’t you think? We’ve been at it twenty minutes if a second, and the figure doesn’t allow one much rest. I’m quite out of breath.’
‘They like them so dreadfully long here. Shall we drop out? Or I’ll stop the fiddler.’
‘O no, no, I think I can finish. But although I look healthy enough I have never been so strong as I formerly was, since that long illness I had in the hospital at Scutari.’
‘And I knew nothing about it!’
‘You couldn’t, dear, as I didn’t write. What a fool I have been altogether!’ He gave a twitch, as of one in pain. ‘I won’t dance again when this one is over. The fact is I have travelled a long way today, and it seems to have knocked me up a bit.’
There could be no doubt that the sergeant-major was unwell, and Selina made herself miserable by still believing that her story was the cause of his ailment. Suddenly he said in a changed voice, and she perceived that he was paler than ever: ‘I must sit down.’
Letting go her waist he went quickly to the other room. She followed, and found him in the nearest chair, his face bent down upon his hands and arms, which were resting on the table.
‘What’s the matter?’ said her father, who sat there dozing by the fire.
‘John isn’t well . . . We are going to New Zealand when we are married, father. A lovely country! John, would you like something to drink?’
‘A drop o’ that Schiedam of old Owlett’s, that’s under stairs, perhaps,’ suggested her father. ‘Not that nowadays ’tis much better than licensed liquor.’
‘John,’ she said, putting her face close to his and pressing his arm. ‘Will you have a drop of spirits or something?’
He did not reply, and Selina observed that his ear and the side of his face were quite white. Convinced that his illness was serious, a growing dismay seized hold of her. The dance ended; her mother came in, and learning what had happened, looked narrowly at the sergeant-major.
‘We must not let him lie like that, lift him up,’ she said. ‘Let him rest in the window-bench on some cushions.’
They unfolded his arms and hands as they lay clasped upon the table, and on lifting his head found his features to bear the very impress of death itself. Bartholomew Miller, who had now come in, assisted Mr. Paddock to make a comfortable couch in the window-seat, where they stretched out Clark upon his back.
Still he seemed unconscious. ‘We must get a doctor,’ said Selina. ‘O, my dear John, how is it you be taken like this?’
‘My impression is that he’s dead!’ murmured Mr. Paddock. ‘He don’t breathe enough to move a tomtit’s feather.’
There were plenty to volunteer to go for a doctor, but as it would be at least an hour before he could get there the case seemed somewhat hopeless. The dancing-party ended as unceremoniously as it had begun; but the guests lingered round the premises till the doctor should arrive. When he did come the sergeant-major’s extremities were already cold, and there was no doubt that death had overtaken him almost at the moment that he had sat down.
The medical practitioner quite refused to accept the unhappy Selina’s theory that her revelation had in any way induced Clark’s sudden collapse. Both he and the coroner afterwards, who found the immediate cause to be heart-failure, held that such a supposition was unwarranted by facts. They asserted that a long day’s journey, a hurried drive, and then an exhausting dance, were sufficient for such a result upon a heart enfeebled by fatty degeneration after the privations of a Crimean winter and other trying experiences, the coincidence of the sad event with any disclosure of hers being a pure accident.
This conclusion, however, did not dislodge Selina’s opinion that the shock of her statement had been the immediate stroke which had felled a constitution so undermined.
At this date the Casterbridge Barracks were cavalry quarters, their adaptation to artillery having been effected some years later. It had been owing to the fact that the —— th Dragoons, in which John Clark had served, happened to be lying there that Selina made his acquaintance. At the time of his death the barracks were occupied by the Scots Greys, but when the pathetic circumstances of the sergeant-major’s end became known in the town the officers of the Greys offered the services of their fine reed and brass band, that he might have a funeral marked by due military honours. His body was accordingly removed to the barracks, and carried thence to the churchyard in the Durnover quarter on the following afternoon, one of the Greys’ most ancient and docile chargers being blacked up to represent Clark’s horse on the occasion.
Everybody pitied Selina, whose story was well known. She followed the corpse as the only mourner, Clark having been without relations in this part of the country, and a communication with his regiment having brought none from a distance. She sat in a little shabby brown-black mourning carriage, squeezing herself up in a corner to be as much as possible out of sight during the slow and dramatic march through the town to the tune from Saul. When the interment had taken place, the volleys been fired, and the return journey begun, it was with something like a shock that she found the military escort to be moving at a quick march to the lively strains of ‘Off she goes!’ as if all care for the sergeant-major was expected to be ended with the late discharge of the carbines. It was, by chance, the very tune to which they had been footing when he died, and unable to bear its notes, she hastily told her driver to drop behind. The band and military party diminished up the High Street, and Selina turned over Swan bridge and homeward to Mellstock.
Then recommenced for her a life whose incidents were precisely of a suit with those which had preceded the soldier’s return; but how different in her appreciation of them! Her narrow miss of the recovered respectability they had hoped for from that tardy event worked upon her parents as an irritant, and after the first week or two of her mourning her life with them grew almost insupportable. She had impulsively taken to herself the weeds of a widow, for such she seemed to herself to be, and clothed little Johnny in sables likewise. This assumption of a moral relationship to the deceased, which she asserted to be only not a legal one by two most unexpected accidents, led the old people to indulge in sarcasm at her expense whenever they beheld her attire, though all the while it cost them more pain to utter than it gave her to hear it. Having become accustomed by her residence at home to the business carried on by her father, she surprised them one day by going off with the child to Chalk–Newton, in the direction of the town of Ivell, and opening a miniature fruit and vegetable shop, attending Ivell market with her produce. Her business grew somewhat larger, and it was soon sufficient to enable her to support herself and the boy in comfort. She called herself ‘Mrs. John Clark’ from the day of leaving home, and painted the name on her signboard — no man forbidding her.
By degrees the pain of her state was forgotten in her new circumstances, and getting to be generally accepted as the widow of a sergeant-major of dragoons — an assumption which her modest and mournful demeanour seemed to substantiate — her life became a placid one, her mind being nourished by the melancholy luxury of dreaming what might have been her future in New Zealand with John, if he had only lived to take her there. Her only travels now were a journey to Ivell on market-days, and once a fortnight to the churchyard in which Clark lay, there to tend, with Johnny’s assistance, as widows are wont to do, the flowers she had planted upon his grave.
On a day about eighteen months after his unexpected decease, Selina was surprised in her lodging over her little shop by a visit from Bartholomew Miller. He had called on her once or twice before, on which occasions he had used without a word of comment the name by which she was known.
‘I’ve come this time,’ he said, ‘less because I was in this direction than to ask you, Mrs. Clark, what you mid well guess. I’ve come o’ purpose, in short.’
‘’Tis to ask me again to marry you?’
‘Yes, of course. You see, his coming back for ‘ee proved what I always believed of ‘ee, though others didn’t. There’s nobody but would be glad to welcome you to our parish again, now you’ve showed your independence and acted up to your trust in his promise. Well, my dear, will you come?’
‘I’d rather bide as Mrs. Clark, I think,’ she answered. ‘I am not ashamed of my position at all; for I am John’s widow in the eyes of Heaven.’
‘I quite agree — that’s why I’ve come. Still, you won’t like to be always straining at this shop-keeping and market-standing; and ‘twould be better for Johnny if you had nothing to do but tend him.’
He here touched the only weak spot in Selina’s resistance to his proposal — the good of the boy. To promote that there were other men she might have married offhand without loving them if they had asked her to; but though she had known the worthy speaker from her youth, she could not for the moment fancy herself happy as Mrs. Miller.
He paused awhile. ‘I ought to tell ‘ee, Mrs. Clark,’ he said by and by, ‘that marrying is getting to be a pressing question with me. Not on my own account at all. The truth is, that mother is growing old, and I am away from home a good deal, so that it is almost necessary there should be another person in the house with her besides me. That’s the practical consideration which forces me to think of taking a wife, apart from my wish to take you; and you know there’s nobody in the world I care for so much.’
She said something about there being far better women than she, and other natural commonplaces; but assured him she was most grateful to him for feeling what he felt, as indeed she sincerely was. However, Selina would not consent to be the useful third person in his comfortable home — at any rate just then. He went away, after taking tea with her, without discerning much hope for him in her good-bye.
After that evening she saw and heard nothing of him for a great while. Her fortnightly journeys to the sergeant-major’s grave were continued, whenever weather did not hinder them; and Mr. Miller must have known, she thought, of this custom of hers. But though the churchyard was not nearly so far from his homestead as was her shop at Chalk–Newton, he never appeared in the accidental way that lovers use.
An explanation was forthcoming in the shape of a letter from her mother, who casually mentioned that Mr. Bartholomew Miller had gone away to the other side of Shottsford–Forum to be married to a thriving dairyman’s daughter that he knew there. His chief motive, it was reported, had been less one of love than a wish to provide a companion for his aged mother.
Selina was practical enough to know that she had lost a good and possibly the only opportunity of settling in life after what had happened, and for a moment she regretted her independence. But she became calm on reflection, and to fortify herself in her course started that afternoon to tend the sergeant-major’s grave, in which she took the same sober pleasure as at first.
On reaching the churchyard and turning the corner towards the spot as usual, she was surprised to perceive another woman, also apparently a respectable widow, and with a tiny boy by her side, bending over Clark’s turf, and spudding up with the point of her umbrella some ivy-roots that Selina had reverently planted there to form an evergreen mantle over the mound.
‘What are you digging up my ivy for!’ cried Selina, rushing forward so excitedly that Johnny tumbled over a grave with the force of the tug she gave his hand in her sudden start.
‘Your ivy?’ said the respectable woman.
‘Why yes! I planted it there — on my husband’s grave.’
‘Yes. The late Sergeant–Major Clark. Anyhow, as good as my husband, for he was just going to be.’
‘Indeed. But who may be my husband, if not he? I am the only Mrs. John Clark, widow of the late Sergeant–Major of Dragoons, and this is his only son and heir.’
‘How can that be?’ faltered Selina, her throat seeming to stick together as she just began to perceive its possibility. ‘He had been — going to marry me twice — and we were going to New Zealand.’
‘Ah! — I remember about you,’ returned the legitimate widow calmly and not unkindly. ‘You must be Selina; he spoke of you now and then, and said that his relations with you would always be a weight on his conscience. Well; the history of my life with him is soon told. When he came back from the Crimea he became acquainted with me at my home in the north, and we were married within a month of first knowing each other. Unfortunately, after living together a few months, we could not agree; and after a particularly sharp quarrel, in which, perhaps, I was most in the wrong — as I don’t mind owning here by his graveside — he went away from me, declaring he would buy his discharge and emigrate to New Zealand, and never come back to me any more. The next thing I heard was that he had died suddenly at Mellstock at some low carouse; and as he had left me in such anger to live no more with me, I wouldn’t come down to his funeral, or do anything in relation to him. ’Twas temper, I know, but that was the fact. Even if we had parted friends it would have been a serious expense to travel three hundred miles to get there, for one who wasn’t left so very well off . . . I am sorry I pulled up your ivy-roots; but that common sort of ivy is considered a weed in my part of the country.’
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:51