The Romantic Adventures of a Milkmaid, by Thomas Hardy

Chapter 7

Jim thoughtfully retraced his steps. He was a village character, and he had a villager’s simplicity: that is, the simplicity which comes from the lack of a complicated experience. But simple by nature he certainly was not. Among the rank and file of rustics he was quite a Talleyrand, or rather had been one, till he lost a good deal of his self-command by falling in love.

Now, however, that the charming object of his distraction was out of sight he could deliberate, and measure, and weigh things with some approach to keenness. The substance of his queries was, What change had come over Margery — whence these new notions?

Ponder as he would he could evolve no answer save one, which, eminently unsatisfactory as it was, he felt it would be unreasonable not to accept: that she was simply skittish and ambitious by nature, and would not be hunted into matrimony till he had provided a well-adorned home.

Jim retrod the miles to the kiln, and looked to the fires. The kiln stood in a peculiar, interesting, even impressive spot. It was at the end of a short ravine in a limestone formation, and all around was an open hilly down. The nearest house was that of Jim’s cousin and partner, which stood on the outskirts of the down beside the turnpike-road. From this house a little lane wound between the steep escarpments of the ravine till it reached the kiln, which faced down the miniature valley, commanding it as a fort might command a defile.

The idea of a fort in this association owed little to imagination. For on the nibbled green steep above the kiln stood a bye-gone, worn-out specimen of such an erection, huge, impressive, and difficult to scale even now in its decay. It was a British castle or entrenchment, with triple rings of defence, rising roll behind roll, their outlines cutting sharply against the sky, and Jim’s kiln nearly undermining their base. When the lime-kiln flared up in the night, which it often did, its fires lit up the front of these ramparts to a great majesty. They were old friends of his, and while keeping up the heat through the long darkness, as it was sometimes his duty to do, he would imagine the dancing lights and shades about the stupendous earthwork to be the forms of those giants who (he supposed) had heaped it up. Often he clambered upon it, and walked about the summit, thinking out the problems connected with his business, his partner, his future, his Margery.

It was what he did this evening, continuing the meditation on the young girl’s manner that he had begun upon the road, and still, as then, finding no clue to the change.

While thus engaged he observed a man coming up the ravine to the kiln. Business messages were almost invariably left at the house below, and Jim watched the man with the interest excited by a belief that he had come on a personal matter. On nearer approach Jim recognized him as the gardener at Mount Lodge some miles away. If this meant business, the Baron (of whose arrival Jim had vaguely heard) was a new and unexpected customer.

It meant nothing else, apparently. The man’s errand was simply to inform Jim that the Baron required a load of lime for the garden.

‘You might have saved yourself trouble by leaving word at Mr. Vine’s,’ said Jim.

‘I was to see you personally,’ said the gardener, ‘and to say that the Baron would like to inquire of you about the different qualities of lime proper for such purposes.’

‘Couldn’t you tell him yourself?’ said Jim.

‘He said I was to tell you that,’ replied the gardener; ‘and it wasn’t for me to interfere.’

No motive other than the ostensible one could possibly be conjectured by Jim Hayward at this time; and the next morning he started with great pleasure, in his best business suit of clothes. By eleven o’clock he and his horse and cart had arrived on the Baron’s premises, and the lime was deposited where directed; an exceptional spot, just within view of the windows of the south front.

Baron von Xanten, pale and melancholy, was sauntering in the sun on the slope between the house and the all-the-year-round. He looked across to where Jim and the gardener were standing, and the identity of Hayward being established by what he brought, the Baron came down, and the gardener withdrew.

The Baron’s first inquiries were, as Jim had been led to suppose they would be, on the exterminating effects of lime upon slugs and snails in its different conditions of slaked and unslaked, ground and in the lump. He appeared to be much interested by Jim’s explanations, and eyed the young man closely whenever he had an opportunity.

‘And I hope trade is prosperous with you this year,’ said the Baron.

‘Very, my noble lord,’ replied Jim, who, in his uncertainty on the proper method of address, wisely concluded that it was better to err by giving too much honour than by giving too little. ‘In short, trade is looking so well that I’ve become a partner in the firm.’

‘Indeed; I am glad to hear it. So now you are settled in life.’

‘Well, my lord; I am hardly settled, even now. For I’ve got to finish it — I mean, to get married.’

‘That’s an easy matter, compared with the partnership.’

‘Now a man might think so, my baron,’ said Jim, getting more confidential. ‘But the real truth is, ’tis the hardest part of all for me.’

‘Your suit prospers, I hope?’

‘It don’t,’ said Jim. ‘It don’t at all just at present. In short, I can’t for the life o’ me think what’s come over the young woman lately.’ And he fell into deep reflection.

Though Jim did not observe it, the Baron’s brow became shadowed with self-reproach as he heard those simple words, and his eyes had a look of pity. ‘Indeed — since when?’ he asked.

‘Since yesterday, my noble lord.’ Jim spoke meditatively. He was resolving upon a bold stroke. Why not make a confidant of this kind gentleman, instead of the parson, as he had intended? The thought was no sooner conceived than acted on. ‘My lord,’ he resumed, ‘I have heard that you are a nobleman of great scope and talent, who has seen more strange countries and characters than I have ever heard of, and know the insides of men well. Therefore I would fain put a question to your noble lordship, if I may so trouble you, and having nobody else in the world who could inform me so trewly.’

‘Any advice I can give is at your service, Hayward. What do you wish to know?’

‘It is this, my baron. What can I do to bring down a young woman’s ambition that’s got to such a towering height there’s no reaching it or compassing it: how get her to be pleased with me and my station as she used to be when I first knew her?’

‘Truly, that’s a hard question, my man. What does she aspire to?’

‘She’s got a craze for fine furniture.’

‘How long has she had it?’

‘Only just now.’

The Baron seemed still more to experience regret.

‘What furniture does she specially covet?’ he asked.

‘Silver candlesticks, work-tables, looking-glasses, gold tea-things, silver tea-pots, gold clocks, curtains, pictures, and I don’t know what all — things I shall never get if I live to be a hundred — not so much that I couldn’t raise the money to buy ’em, as that to put it to other uses, or save it for a rainy day.’

‘You think the possession of those articles would make her happy?’

‘I really think they might, my lord.’

‘Good. Open your pocket-book and write as I tell you.’

Jim in some astonishment did as commanded, and elevating his pocket-book against the garden-wall, thoroughly moistened his pencil, and wrote at the Baron’s dictation:

‘Pair of silver candlesticks: inlaid work-table and work-box: one large mirror: two small ditto: one gilt china tea and coffee service: one silver tea-pot, coffee-pot, sugar-basin, jug, and dozen spoons: French clock: pair of curtains: six large pictures.’

‘Now,’ said the Baron, ‘tear out that leaf and give it to me. Keep a close tongue about this; go home, and don’t be surprised at anything that may come to your door.’

‘But, my noble lord, you don’t mean that your lordship is going to give —’

‘Never mind what I am going to do. Only keep your own counsel. I perceive that, though a plain countryman, you are by no means deficient in tact and understanding. If sending these things to you gives me pleasure, why should you object? The fact is, Hayward, I occasionally take an interest in people, and like to do a little for them. I take an interest in you. Now go home, and a week hence invite Marg — the young woman and her father, to tea with you. The rest is in your own hands.’

A question often put to Jim in after times was why it had not occurred to him at once that the Baron’s liberal conduct must have been dictated by something more personal than sudden spontaneous generosity to him, a stranger. To which Jim always answered that, admitting the existence of such generosity, there had appeared nothing remarkable in the Baron selecting himself as its object. The Baron had told him that he took an interest in him; and self-esteem, even with the most modest, is usually sufficient to over-ride any little difficulty that might occur to an outsider in accounting for a preference. He moreover considered that foreign noblemen, rich and eccentric, might have habits of acting which were quite at variance with those of their English compeers.

So he drove off homeward with a lighter heart than he had known for several days. To have a foreign gentleman take a fancy to him — what a triumph to a plain sort of fellow, who had scarcely expected the Baron to look in his face. It would be a fine story to tell Margery when the Baron gave him liberty to speak out.

Jim lodged at the house of his cousin and partner, Richard Vine, a widower of fifty odd years. Having failed in the development of a household of direct descendants this tradesman had been glad to let his chambers to his much younger relative, when the latter entered on the business of lime manufacture; and their intimacy had led to a partnership. Jim lived upstairs; his partner lived down, and the furniture of all the rooms was so plain and old fashioned as to excite the special dislike of Miss Margery Tucker, and even to prejudice her against Jim for tolerating it. Not only were the chairs and tables queer, but, with due regard to the principle that a man’s surroundings should bear the impress of that man’s life and occupation, the chief ornaments of the dwelling were a curious collection of calcinations, that had been discovered from time to time in the lime-kiln — misshapen ingots of strange substance, some of them like Pompeian remains.

The head of the firm was a quiet-living, narrow-minded, though friendly, man of fifty; and he took a serious interest in Jim’s love-suit, frequently inquiring how it progressed, and assuring Jim that if he chose to marry he might have all the upper floor at a low rent, he, Mr. Vine, contenting himself entirely with the ground level. It had been so convenient for discussing business matters to have Jim in the same house, that he did not wish any change to be made in consequence of a change in Jim’s domestic estate. Margery knew of this wish, and of Jim’s concurrent feeling; and did not like the idea at all.

About four days after the young man’s interview with the Baron, there drew up in front of Jim’s house at noon a waggon laden with cases and packages, large and small. They were all addressed to ‘Mr. Hayward,’ and they had come from the largest furnishing ware-houses in that part of England.

Three-quarters of an hour were occupied in getting the cases to Jim’s rooms. The wary Jim did not show the amazement he felt at his patron’s munificence; and presently the senior partner came into the passage, and wondered what was lumbering upstairs.

‘Oh — it’s only some things of mine,’ said Jim coolly.

‘Bearing upon the coming event — eh?’ said his partner.

‘Exactly,’ replied Jim.

Mr. Vine, with some astonishment at the number of cases, shortly after went away to the kiln; whereupon Jim shut himself into his rooms, and there he might have been heard ripping up and opening boxes with a cautious hand, afterwards appearing outside the door with them empty, and carrying them off to the outhouse.

A triumphant look lit up his face when, a little later in the afternoon, he sent into the vale to the dairy, and invited Margery and her father to his house to supper.

She was not unsociable that day, and, her father expressing a hard and fast acceptance of the invitation, she perforce agreed to go with him. Meanwhile at home, Jim made himself as mysteriously busy as before in those rooms of his, and when his partner returned he too was asked to join in the supper.

At dusk Hayward went to the door, where he stood till he heard the voices of his guests from the direction of the low grounds, now covered with their frequent fleece of fog. The voices grew more distinct, and then on the white surface of the fog there appeared two trunkless heads, from which bodies and a horse and cart gradually extended as the approaching pair rose towards the house.

When they had entered Jim pressed Margery’s hand and conducted her up to his rooms, her father waiting below to say a few words to the senior lime-burner.

‘Bless me,’ said Jim to her, on entering the sitting-room; ‘I quite forgot to get a light beforehand; but I’ll have one in a jiffy.’

Margery stood in the middle of the dark room, while Jim struck a match; and then the young girl’s eyes were conscious of a burst of light, and the rise into being of a pair of handsome silver candlesticks containing two candles that Jim was in the act of lighting.

‘Why — where — you have candlesticks like that?’ said Margery. Her eyes flew round the room as the growing candle-flames showed other articles. ‘Pictures too — and lovely china — why I knew nothing of this, I declare.’

‘Yes — a few things that came to me by accident,’ said Jim in quiet tones.

‘And a great gold clock under a glass, and a cupid swinging for a pendulum; and O what a lovely work-table — woods of every colour — and a work-box to match. May I look inside that work-box, Jim? — whose is it?’

‘O yes; look at it, of course. It is a poor enough thing, but ’tis mine; and it will belong to the woman I marry, whoever she may be, as well as all the other things here.’

‘And the curtains and the looking-glasses: why I declare I can see myself in a hundred places.’

‘That tea-set,’ said Jim, placidly pointing to a gorgeous china service and a large silver tea-pot on the side table, ‘I don’t use at present, being a bachelor-man; but, says I to myself, “whoever I marry will want some such things for giving her parties; or I can sell em”— but I haven’t took steps for’t yet —’

‘Sell ’em — no, I should think not,’ said Margery with earnest reproach. ‘Why, I hope you wouldn’t be so foolish! Why, this is exactly the kind of thing I was thinking of when I told you of the things women could want — of course not meaning myself particularly. I had no idea that you had such valuable —’

Margery was unable to speak coherently, so much was she amazed at the wealth of Jim’s possessions.

At this moment her father and the lime-burner came upstairs; and to appear womanly and proper to Mr. Vine, Margery repressed the remainder of her surprise.

As for the two elderly worthies, it was not till they entered the room and sat down that their slower eyes discerned anything brilliant in the appointments. Then one of them stole a glance at some article, and the other at another; but each being unwilling to express his wonder in the presence of his neighbours, they received the objects before them with quite an accustomed air; the lime-burner inwardly trying to conjecture what all this meant, and the dairyman musing that if Jim’s business allowed him to accumulate at this rate, the sooner Margery became his wife the better. Margery retreated to the work-table, work-box, and tea-service, which she examined with hushed exclamations.

An entertainment thus surprisingly begun could not fail to progress well. Whenever Margery’s crusty old father felt the need of a civil sentence, the flash of Jim’s fancy articles inspired him to one; while the lime-burner, having reasoned away his first ominous thought that all this had come out of the firm, also felt proud and blithe.

Jim accompanied his dairy friends part of the way home before they mounted. Her father, finding that Jim wanted to speak to her privately, and that she exhibited some elusiveness, turned to Margery and said; ‘Come, come, my lady; no more of this nonsense. You just step behind with that young man, and I and the cart will wait for you.’

Margery, a little scared at her father’s peremptoriness, obeyed. It was plain that Jim had won the old man by that night’s stroke, if he had not won her.

‘I know what you are going to say, Jim,’ she began, less ardently now, for she was no longer under the novel influence of the shining silver and glass. ‘Well, as you desire it, and as my father desires it, and as I suppose it will be the best course for me, I will fix the day — not this evening, but as soon as I can think it over.’

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55