The Return of the Native 1; 010203

By Thomas Hardy
 

1–A Face on Which Time Makes but Little Impression

 

A Saturday afternoon in November was approaching the time of twilight,

and the vast tract of unenclosed wild known as Egdon Heath embrowned

itself moment by moment. Overhead the hollow stretch of whitish cloud

shutting out the sky was as a tent which had the whole heath for its

floor.

 

The heaven being spread with this pallid screen and the earth with

the darkest vegetation, their meeting-line at the horizon was clearly

marked. In such contrast the heath wore the appearance of an instalment

of night which had taken up its place before its astronomical hour was

come: darkness had to a great extent arrived hereon, while day stood

distinct in the sky. Looking upwards, a furze-cutter would have been

inclined to continue work; looking down, he would have decided to

finish his faggot and go home. The distant rims of the world and of the

firmament seemed to be a division in time no less than a division in

matter. The face of the heath by its mere complexion added half an

hour to evening; it could in like manner retard the dawn, sadden noon,

anticipate the frowning of storms scarcely generated, and intensify the

opacity of a moonless midnight to a cause of shaking and dread.

 

In fact, precisely at this transitional point of its nightly roll into

darkness the great and particular glory of the Egdon waste began, and

nobody could be said to understand the heath who had not been there at

such a time. It could best be felt when it could not clearly be seen,

its complete effect and explanation lying in this and the succeeding

hours before the next dawn; then, and only then, did it tell its true

tale. The spot was, indeed, a near relation of night, and when night

showed itself an apparent tendency to gravitate together could be

perceived in its shades and the scene. The sombre stretch of rounds and

hollows seemed to rise and meet the evening gloom in pure sympathy, the

heath exhaling darkness as rapidly as the heavens precipitated it.

And so the obscurity in the air and the obscurity in the land closed

together in a black fraternization towards which each advanced halfway.

 

The place became full of a watchful intentness now; for when other

things sank blooding to sleep the heath appeared slowly to awake and

listen. Every night its Titanic form seemed to await something; but it

had waited thus, unmoved, during so many centuries, through the crises

of so many things, that it could only be imagined to await one last

crisis–the final overthrow.

 

It was a spot which returned upon the memory of those who loved it

with an aspect of peculiar and kindly congruity. Smiling champaigns of

flowers and fruit hardly do this, for they are permanently harmonious

only with an existence of better reputation as to its issues than the

present. Twilight combined with the scenery of Egdon Heath to evolve a

thing majestic without severity, impressive without showiness, emphatic

in its admonitions, grand in its simplicity. The qualifications which

frequently invest the facade of a prison with far more dignity than is

found in the facade of a palace double its size lent to this heath a

sublimity in which spots renowned for beauty of the accepted kind are

utterly wanting. Fair prospects wed happily with fair times; but alas,

if times be not fair! Men have oftener suffered from, the mockery of

a place too smiling for their reason than from the oppression of

surroundings oversadly tinged. Haggard Egdon appealed to a subtler and

scarcer instinct, to a more recently learnt emotion, than that which

responds to the sort of beauty called charming and fair.

 

Indeed, it is a question if the exclusive reign of this orthodox beauty

is not approaching its last quarter. The new Vale of Tempe may be a

gaunt waste in Thule; human souls may find themselves in closer and

closer harmony with external things wearing a sombreness distasteful to

our race when it was young. The time seems near, if it has not actually

arrived, when the chastened sublimity of a moor, a sea, or a mountain

will be all of nature that is absolutely in keeping with the moods

of the more thinking among mankind. And ultimately, to the commonest

tourist, spots like Iceland may become what the vineyards and myrtle

gardens of South Europe are to him now; and Heidelberg and Baden

be passed unheeded as he hastens from the Alps to the sand dunes of

Scheveningen.

 

The most thoroughgoing ascetic could feel that he had a natural right to

wander on Egdon–he was keeping within the line of legitimate indulgence

when he laid himself open to influences such as these. Colours and

beauties so far subdued were, at least, the birthright of all. Only in

summer days of highest feather did its mood touch the level of gaiety.

Intensity was more usually reached by way of the solemn than by way of

the brilliant, and such a sort of intensity was often arrived at

during winter darkness, tempests, and mists. Then Egdon was aroused to

reciprocity; for the storm was its lover, and the wind its friend.

Then it became the home of strange phantoms; and it was found to be the

hitherto unrecognized original of those wild regions of obscurity which

are vaguely felt to be compassing us about in midnight dreams of flight

and disaster, and are never thought of after the dream till revived by

scenes like this.

 

It was at present a place perfectly accordant with man’s nature–neither

ghastly, hateful, nor ugly; neither commonplace, unmeaning, nor tame;

but, like man, slighted and enduring; and withal singularly colossal and

mysterious in its swarthy monotony. As with some persons who have long

lived apart, solitude seemed to look out of its countenance. It had a

lonely face, suggesting tragical possibilities.

 

This obscure, obsolete, superseded country figures in Domesday.

Its condition is recorded therein as that of heathy, furzy, briary

wilderness–“Bruaria.” Then follows the length and breadth in leagues;

and, though some uncertainty exists as to the exact extent of this

ancient lineal measure, it appears from the figures that the area of

Egdon down to the present day has but little diminished. “Turbaria

Bruaria”–the right of cutting heath-turf–occurs in charters relating

to the district. “Overgrown with heth and mosse,” says Leland of the

same dark sweep of country.

 

Here at least were intelligible facts regarding landscape–far-reaching

proofs productive of genuine satisfaction. The untameable, Ishmaelitish

thing that Egdon now was it always had been. Civilization was its enemy;

and ever since the beginning of vegetation its soil had worn the

same antique brown dress, the natural and invariable garment of the

particular formation. In its venerable one coat lay a certain vein of

satire on human vanity in clothes. A person on a heath in raiment of

modern cut and colours has more or less an anomalous look. We seem to

want the oldest and simplest human clothing where the clothing of the

earth is so primitive.

 

To recline on a stump of thorn in the central valley of Egdon, between

afternoon and night, as now, where the eye could reach nothing of the

world outside the summits and shoulders of heathland which filled the

whole circumference of its glance, and to know that everything around

and underneath had been from prehistoric times as unaltered as the stars

overhead, gave ballast to the mind adrift on change, and harassed by the

irrepressible New. The great inviolate place had an ancient permanence

which the sea cannot claim. Who can say of a particular sea that it is

old? Distilled by the sun, kneaded by the moon, it is renewed in a

year, in a day, or in an hour. The sea changed, the fields changed, the

rivers, the villages, and the people changed, yet Egdon remained. Those

surfaces were neither so steep as to be destructible by weather, nor so

flat as to be the victims of floods and deposits. With the exception of

an aged highway, and a still more aged barrow presently to be referred

to–themselves almost crystallized to natural products by long

continuance–even the trifling irregularities were not caused by

pickaxe, plough, or spade, but remained as the very finger-touches of

the last geological change.

 

The above-mentioned highway traversed the lower levels of the heath,

from one horizon to another. In many portions of its course it overlaid

an old vicinal way, which branched from the great Western road of the

Romans, the Via Iceniana, or Ikenild Street, hard by. On the evening

under consideration it would have been noticed that, though the gloom

had increased sufficiently to confuse the minor features of the heath,

the white surface of the road remained almost as clear as ever.

——————————————————————————————-

2–Humanity Appears upon the Scene, Hand in Hand with Trouble

 

 

Along the road walked an old man. He was white-headed as a mountain,

bowed in the shoulders, and faded in general aspect. He wore a glazed

hat, an ancient boat-cloak, and shoes; his brass buttons bearing an

anchor upon their face. In his hand was a silver-headed walking stick,

which he used as a veritable third leg, perseveringly dotting the ground

with its point at every few inches’ interval. One would have said that

he had been, in his day, a naval officer of some sort or other.

 

Before him stretched the long, laborious road, dry, empty, and white.

It was quite open to the heath on each side, and bisected that vast dark

surface like the parting-line on a head of black hair, diminishing and

bending away on the furthest horizon.

 

The old man frequently stretched his eyes ahead to gaze over the tract

that he had yet to traverse. At length he discerned, a long distance

in front of him, a moving spot, which appeared to be a vehicle, and

it proved to be going the same way as that in which he himself was

journeying. It was the single atom of life that the scene contained, and

it only served to render the general loneliness more evident. Its rate

of advance was slow, and the old man gained upon it sensibly.

 

When he drew nearer he perceived it to be a spring van, ordinary in

shape, but singular in colour, this being a lurid red. The driver walked

beside it; and, like his van, he was completely red. One dye of that

tincture covered his clothes, the cap upon his head, his boots, his

face, and his hands. He was not temporarily overlaid with the colour; it

permeated him.

 

The old man knew the meaning of this. The traveller with the cart was a

reddleman–a person whose vocation it was to supply farmers with redding

for their sheep. He was one of a class rapidly becoming extinct in

Wessex, filling at present in the rural world the place which, during

the last century, the dodo occupied in the world of animals. He is a

curious, interesting, and nearly perished link between obsolete forms of

life and those which generally prevail.

 

The decayed officer, by degrees, came up alongside his fellow-wayfarer,

and wished him good evening. The reddleman turned his head, and replied

in sad and occupied tones. He was young, and his face, if not exactly

handsome, approached so near to handsome that nobody would have

contradicted an assertion that it really was so in its natural colour.

His eye, which glared so strangely through his stain, was in itself

attractive–keen as that of a bird of prey, and blue as autumn mist. He

had neither whisker nor moustache, which allowed the soft curves of the

lower part of his face to be apparent. His lips were thin, and though,

as it seemed, compressed by thought, there was a pleasant twitch at

their corners now and then. He was clothed throughout in a tight-fitting

suit of corduroy, excellent in quality, not much worn, and well-chosen

for its purpose, but deprived of its original colour by his trade. It

showed to advantage the good shape of his figure. A certain well-to-do

air about the man suggested that he was not poor for his degree.

The natural query of an observer would have been, Why should such

a promising being as this have hidden his prepossessing exterior by

adopting that singular occupation?

 

After replying to the old man’s greeting he showed no inclination to

continue in talk, although they still walked side by side, for the elder

traveller seemed to desire company. There were no sounds but that of

the booming wind upon the stretch of tawny herbage around them, the

crackling wheels, the tread of the men, and the footsteps of the two

shaggy ponies which drew the van. They were small, hardy animals, of a

breed between Galloway and Exmoor, and were known as “heath-croppers”

here.

 

Now, as they thus pursued their way, the reddleman occasionally left his

companion’s side, and, stepping behind the van, looked into its interior

through a small window. The look was always anxious. He would then

return to the old man, who made another remark about the state of the

country and so on, to which the reddleman again abstractedly replied,

and then again they would lapse into silence. The silence conveyed to

neither any sense of awkwardness; in these lonely places wayfarers,

after a first greeting, frequently plod on for miles without speech;

contiguity amounts to a tacit conversation where, otherwise than in

cities, such contiguity can be put an end to on the merest inclination,

and where not to put an end to it is intercourse in itself.

 

Possibly these two might not have spoken again till their parting, had

it not been for the reddleman’s visits to his van. When he returned

from his fifth time of looking in the old man said, “You have something

inside there besides your load?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Somebody who wants looking after?”

 

“Yes.”

 

Not long after this a faint cry sounded from the interior. The reddleman

hastened to the back, looked in, and came away again.

 

“You have a child there, my man?”

 

“No, sir, I have a woman.”

 

“The deuce you have! Why did she cry out?”

 

“Oh, she has fallen asleep, and not being used to traveling, she’s

uneasy, and keeps dreaming.”

 

“A young woman?”

 

“Yes, a young woman.”

 

“That would have interested me forty years ago. Perhaps she’s your

wife?”

 

“My wife!” said the other bitterly. “She’s above mating with such as I.

But there’s no reason why I should tell you about that.”

 

“That’s true. And there’s no reason why you should not. What harm can I

do to you or to her?”

 

The reddleman looked in the old man’s face. “Well, sir,” he said at

last, “I knew her before today, though perhaps it would have been better

if I had not. But she’s nothing to me, and I am nothing to her; and she

wouldn’t have been in my van if any better carriage had been there to

take her.”

 

“Where, may I ask?”

 

“At Anglebury.”

 

“I know the town well. What was she doing there?”

 

“Oh, not much–to gossip about. However, she’s tired to death now, and

not at all well, and that’s what makes her so restless. She dropped off

into a nap about an hour ago, and ’twill do her good.”

 

“A nice-looking girl, no doubt?”

 

“You would say so.”

 

The other traveller turned his eyes with interest towards the van

window, and, without withdrawing them, said, “I presume I might look in

upon her?”

 

“No,” said the reddleman abruptly. “It is getting too dark for you to

see much of her; and, more than that, I have no right to allow you.

Thank God she sleeps so well, I hope she won’t wake till she’s home.”

 

“Who is she? One of the neighbourhood?”

 

“‘Tis no matter who, excuse me.”

 

“It is not that girl of Blooms-End, who has been talked about more or

less lately? If so, I know her; and I can guess what has happened.”

 

“‘Tis no matter….Now, sir, I am sorry to say that we shall soon have

to part company. My ponies are tired, and I have further to go, and I am

going to rest them under this bank for an hour.”

 

The elder traveller nodded his head indifferently, and the reddleman

turned his horses and van in upon the turf, saying, “Good night.” The

old man replied, and proceeded on his way as before.

 

The reddleman watched his form as it diminished to a speck on the road

and became absorbed in the thickening films of night. He then took

some hay from a truss which was slung up under the van, and, throwing a

portion of it in front of the horses, made a pad of the rest, which he

laid on the ground beside his vehicle. Upon this he sat down, leaning

his back against the wheel. From the interior a low soft breathing came

to his ear. It appeared to satisfy him, and he musingly surveyed the

scene, as if considering the next step that he should take.

 

To do things musingly, and by small degrees, seemed, indeed, to be a

duty in the Egdon valleys at this transitional hour, for there was that

in the condition of the heath itself which resembled protracted and

halting dubiousness. It was the quality of the repose appertaining

to the scene. This was not the repose of actual stagnation, but the

apparent repose of incredible slowness. A condition of healthy life so

nearly resembling the torpor of death is a noticeable thing of its

sort; to exhibit the inertness of the desert, and at the same time to be

exercising powers akin to those of the meadow, and even of the forest,

awakened in those who thought of it the attentiveness usually engendered

by understatement and reserve.

 

The scene before the reddleman’s eyes was a gradual series of ascents

from the level of the road backward into the heart of the heath. It

embraced hillocks, pits, ridges, acclivities, one behind the other, till

all was finished by a high hill cutting against the still light sky.

The traveller’s eye hovered about these things for a time, and finally

settled upon one noteworthy object up there. It was a barrow. This bossy

projection of earth above its natural level occupied the loftiest ground

of the loneliest height that the heath contained. Although from the

vale it appeared but as a wart on an Atlantean brow, its actual bulk was

great. It formed the pole and axis of this heathery world.

 

As the resting man looked at the barrow he became aware that its summit,

hitherto the highest object in the whole prospect round, was surmounted

by something higher. It rose from the semiglobular mound like a spike

from a helmet. The first instinct of an imaginative stranger might have

been to suppose it the person of one of the Celts who built the barrow,

so far had all of modern date withdrawn from the scene. It seemed a sort

of last man among them, musing for a moment before dropping into eternal

night with the rest of his race.

 

There the form stood, motionless as the hill beneath. Above the plain

rose the hill, above the hill rose the barrow, and above the barrow rose

the figure. Above the figure was nothing that could be mapped elsewhere

than on a celestial globe.

 

Such a perfect, delicate, and necessary finish did the figure give

to the dark pile of hills that it seemed to be the only obvious

justification of their outline. Without it, there was the dome without

the lantern; with it the architectural demands of the mass were

satisfied. The scene was strangely homogeneous, in that the vale, the

upland, the barrow, and the figure above it amounted only to unity.

Looking at this or that member of the group was not observing a complete

thing, but a fraction of a thing.

 

The form was so much like an organic part of the entire motionless

structure that to see it move would have impressed the mind as a strange

phenomenon. Immobility being the chief characteristic of that whole

which the person formed portion of, the discontinuance of immobility in

any quarter suggested confusion.

 

Yet that is what happened. The figure perceptibly gave up its fixity,

shifted a step or two, and turned round. As if alarmed, it descended on

the right side of the barrow, with the glide of a water-drop down a bud,

and then vanished. The movement had been sufficient to show more clearly

the characteristics of the figure, and that it was a woman’s.

 

The reason of her sudden displacement now appeared. With her dropping

out of sight on the right side, a newcomer, bearing a burden, protruded

into the sky on the left side, ascended the tumulus, and deposited the

burden on the top. A second followed, then a third, a fourth, a fifth,

and ultimately the whole barrow was peopled with burdened figures.

 

The only intelligible meaning in this sky-backed pantomime of

silhouettes was that the woman had no relation to the forms who had

taken her place, was sedulously avoiding these, and had come thither

for another object than theirs. The imagination of the observer clung

by preference to that vanished, solitary figure, as to something more

interesting, more important, more likely to have a history worth knowing

than these newcomers, and unconsciously regarded them as intruders. But

they remained, and established themselves; and the lonely person who

hitherto had been queen of the solitude did not at present seem likely

to return. 

 

——————————————————————————————-

 

3–The Custom of the Country

 

 

Had a looker-on been posted in the immediate vicinity of the barrow,

he would have learned that these persons were boys and men of the

neighbouring hamlets. Each, as he ascended the barrow, had been heavily

laden with furze faggots, carried upon the shoulder by means of a long

stake sharpened at each end for impaling them easily–two in front and

two behind. They came from a part of the heath a quarter of a mile to

the rear, where furze almost exclusively prevailed as a product.

 

Every individual was so involved in furze by his method of carrying the

faggots that he appeared like a bush on legs till he had thrown them

down. The party had marched in trail, like a travelling flock of sheep;

that is to say, the strongest first, the weak and young behind.

 

The loads were all laid together, and a pyramid of furze thirty feet in

circumference now occupied the crown of the tumulus, which was known as

Rainbarrow for many miles round. Some made themselves busy with matches,

and in selecting the driest tufts of furze, others in loosening the

bramble bonds which held the faggots together. Others, again, while this

was in progress, lifted their eyes and swept the vast expanse of country

commanded by their position, now lying nearly obliterated by shade. In

the valleys of the heath nothing save its own wild face was visible at

any time of day; but this spot commanded a horizon enclosing a tract of

far extent, and in many cases lying beyond the heath country. None of

its features could be seen now, but the whole made itself felt as a

vague stretch of remoteness.

 

While the men and lads were building the pile, a change took place in

the mass of shade which denoted the distant landscape. Red suns and

tufts of fire one by one began to arise, flecking the whole country

round. They were the bonfires of other parishes and hamlets that were

engaged in the same sort of commemoration. Some were distant, and stood

in a dense atmosphere, so that bundles of pale straw-like beams radiated

around them in the shape of a fan. Some were large and near, glowing

scarlet-red from the shade, like wounds in a black hide. Some were

Maenades, with winy faces and blown hair. These tinctured the silent

bosom of the clouds above them and lit up their ephemeral caves, which

seemed thenceforth to become scalding caldrons. Perhaps as many

as thirty bonfires could be counted within the whole bounds of the

district; and as the hour may be told on a clock-face when the figures

themselves are invisible, so did the men recognize the locality of each

fire by its angle and direction, though nothing of the scenery could be

viewed.

 

The first tall flame from Rainbarrow sprang into the sky, attracting all

eyes that had been fixed on the distant conflagrations back to their own

attempt in the same kind. The cheerful blaze streaked the inner surface

of the human circle–now increased by other stragglers, male and

female–with its own gold livery, and even overlaid the dark turf around

with a lively luminousness, which softened off into obscurity where the

barrow rounded downwards out of sight. It showed the barrow to be the

segment of a globe, as perfect as on the day when it was thrown up, even

the little ditch remaining from which the earth was dug. Not a plough

had ever disturbed a grain of that stubborn soil. In the heath’s

barrenness to the farmer lay its fertility to the historian. There had

been no obliteration, because there had been no tending.

 

It seemed as if the bonfire-makers were standing in some radiant upper

story of the world, detached from and independent of the dark stretches

below. The heath down there was now a vast abyss, and no longer a

continuation of what they stood on; for their eyes, adapted to

the blaze, could see nothing of the deeps beyond its influence.

Occasionally, it is true, a more vigorous flare than usual from their

faggots sent darting lights like aides-de-camp down the inclines to some

distant bush, pool, or patch of white sand, kindling these to replies

of the same colour, till all was lost in darkness again. Then the whole

black phenomenon beneath represented Limbo as viewed from the brink by

the sublime Florentine in his vision, and the muttered articulations of

the wind in the hollows were as complaints and petitions from the “souls

of mighty worth” suspended therein.

 

It was as if these men and boys had suddenly dived into past ages, and

fetched therefrom an hour and deed which had before been familiar with

this spot. The ashes of the original British pyre which blazed from that

summit lay fresh and undisturbed in the barrow beneath their tread. The

flames from funeral piles long ago kindled there had shone down upon the

lowlands as these were shining now. Festival fires to Thor and Woden had

followed on the same ground and duly had their day. Indeed, it is pretty

well known that such blazes as this the heathmen were now enjoying are

rather the lineal descendants from jumbled Druidical rites and Saxon

ceremonies than the invention of popular feeling about Gunpowder Plot.

 

Moreover to light a fire is the instinctive and resistant act of man

when, at the winter ingress, the curfew is sounded throughout Nature.

It indicates a spontaneous, Promethean rebelliousness against that fiat

that this recurrent season shall bring foul times, cold darkness, misery

and death. Black chaos comes, and the fettered gods of the earth say,

Let there be light.

 

The brilliant lights and sooty shades which struggled upon the skin

and clothes of the persons standing round caused their lineaments and

general contours to be drawn with Dureresque vigour and dash. Yet the

permanent moral expression of each face it was impossible to discover,

for as the nimble flames towered, nodded, and swooped through the

surrounding air, the blots of shade and flakes of light upon the

countenances of the group changed shape and position endlessly. All

was unstable; quivering as leaves, evanescent as lightning. Shadowy

eye-sockets, deep as those of a death’s head, suddenly turned into pits

of lustre: a lantern-jaw was cavernous, then it was shining; wrinkles

were emphasized to ravines, or obliterated entirely by a changed ray.

Nostrils were dark wells; sinews in old necks were gilt mouldings;

things with no particular polish on them were glazed; bright objects,

such as the tip of a furze-hook one of the men carried, were as glass;

eyeballs glowed like little lanterns. Those whom Nature had depicted as

merely quaint became grotesque, the grotesque became preternatural; for

all was in extremity.

 

Hence it may be that the face of an old man, who had like others been

called to the heights by the rising flames, was not really the mere nose

and chin that it appeared to be, but an appreciable quantity of human

countenance. He stood complacently sunning himself in the heat. With

a speaker, or stake, he tossed the outlying scraps of fuel into the

conflagration, looking at the midst of the pile, occasionally lifting

his eyes to measure the height of the flame, or to follow the great

sparks which rose with it and sailed away into darkness. The beaming

sight, and the penetrating warmth, seemed to breed in him a cumulative

cheerfulness, which soon amounted to delight. With his stick in his hand

he began to jig a private minuet, a bunch of copper seals shining and

swinging like a pendulum from under his waistcoat: he also began to

sing, in the voice of a bee up a flue–

 

       “The king’ call’d down’ his no-bles all’,

          By one’, by two’, by three’;

       Earl Mar’-shal, I’ll’ go shrive’-the queen’,

          And thou’ shalt wend’ with me’.

 

       “A boon’, a boon’, quoth Earl’ Mar-shal’,

          And fell’ on his bend’-ded knee’,

       That what’-so-e’er’ the queen’ shall say’,

          No harm’ there-of’ may be’.”

 

Want of breath prevented a continuance of the song; and the breakdown

attracted the attention of a firm-standing man of middle age, who kept

each corner of his crescent-shaped mouth rigorously drawn back into his

cheek, as if to do away with any suspicion of mirthfulness which might

erroneously have attached to him.

 

“A fair stave, Grandfer Cantle; but I am afeard ’tis too much for

the mouldy weasand of such a old man as you,” he said to the wrinkled

reveller. “Dostn’t wish th’ wast three sixes again, Grandfer, as you was

when you first learnt to sing it?”

 

“Hey?” said Grandfer Cantle, stopping in his dance.

 

“Dostn’t wish wast young again, I say? There’s a hole in thy poor

bellows nowadays seemingly.”

 

“But there’s good art in me? If I couldn’t make a little wind go a

long ways I should seem no younger than the most aged man, should I,

Timothy?”

 

“And how about the new-married folks down there at the Quiet Woman Inn?”

the other inquired, pointing towards a dim light in the direction of the

distant highway, but considerably apart from where the reddleman was

at that moment resting. “What’s the rights of the matter about ’em? You

ought to know, being an understanding man.”

 

“But a little rakish, hey? I own to it. Master Cantle is that, or he’s

nothing. Yet ’tis a gay fault, neigbbour Fairway, that age will cure.”

 

“I heard that they were coming home tonight. By this time they must have

come. What besides?”

 

“The next thing is for us to go and wish ’em joy, I suppose?”

 

“Well, no.”

 

“No? Now, I thought we must. I must, or ‘twould be very unlike me–the

first in every spree that’s going!

 

       “Do thou’ put on’ a fri’-ar’s coat’,

          And I’ll’ put on’ a-no’-ther,

       And we’ will to’ Queen Ele’anor go’,

          Like Fri’ar and’ his bro’ther.

 

I met Mis’ess Yeobright, the young bride’s aunt, last night, and she

told me that her son Clym was coming home a’ Christmas. Wonderful

clever, ‘a believe–ah, I should like to have all that’s under that

young man’s hair. Well, then, I spoke to her in my well-known merry

way, and she said, ‘O that what’s shaped so venerable should talk like a

fool!’–that’s what she said to me. I don’t care for her, be jowned if I

do, and so I told her. ‘Be jowned if I care for ‘ee,’ I said. I had her

there–hey?”

 

“I rather think she had you,” said Fairway.

 

“No,” said Grandfer Cantle, his countenance slightly flagging. “‘Tisn’t

so bad as that with me?”

 

“Seemingly ’tis, however, is it because of the wedding that Clym is

coming home a’ Christmas–to make a new arrangement because his mother

is now left in the house alone?”

 

“Yes, yes–that’s it. But, Timothy, hearken to me,” said the Grandfer

earnestly. “Though known as such a joker, I be an understanding man if

you catch me serious, and I am serious now. I can tell ‘ee lots about

the married couple. Yes, this morning at six o’clock they went up the

country to do the job, and neither vell nor mark have been seen of ’em

since, though I reckon that this afternoon has brought ’em home again

man and woman–wife, that is. Isn’t it spoke like a man, Timothy, and

wasn’t Mis’ess Yeobright wrong about me?”

 

“Yes, it will do. I didn’t know the two had walked together since last

fall, when her aunt forbad the banns. How long has this new set-to been

in mangling then? Do you know, Humphrey?”

 

“Yes, how long?” said Grandfer Cantle smartly, likewise turning to

Humphrey. “I ask that question.”

 

“Ever since her aunt altered her mind, and said she might have the man

after all,” replied Humphrey, without removing his eyes from the fire.

He was a somewhat solemn young fellow, and carried the hook and leather

gloves of a furze-cutter, his legs, by reason of that occupation, being

sheathed in bulging leggings as stiff as the Philistine’s greaves of

brass. “That’s why they went away to be married, I count. You see, after

kicking up such a nunny-watch and forbidding the banns ‘twould have made

Mis’ess Yeobright seem foolish-like to have a banging wedding in the

same parish all as if she’d never gainsaid it.”

 

“Exactly–seem foolish-like; and that’s very bad for the poor things

that be so, though I only guess as much, to be sure,” said Grandfer

Cantle, still strenuously preserving a sensible bearing and mien.

 

“Ah, well, I was at church that day,” said Fairway, “which was a very

curious thing to happen.”

 

“If ’twasn’t my name’s Simple,” said the Grandfer emphatically. “I

ha’n’t been there to-year; and now the winter is a-coming on I won’t say

I shall.”

 

“I ha’n’t been these three years,” said Humphrey; “for I’m so dead

sleepy of a Sunday; and ’tis so terrible far to get there; and when you

do get there ’tis such a mortal poor chance that you’ll be chose for up

above, when so many bain’t, that I bide at home and don’t go at all.”

 

“I not only happened to be there,” said Fairway, with a fresh collection

of emphasis, “but I was sitting in the same pew as Mis’ess Yeobright.

And though you may not see it as such, it fairly made my blood run cold

to hear her. Yes, it is a curious thing; but it made my blood run

cold, for I was close at her elbow.” The speaker looked round upon

the bystanders, now drawing closer to hear him, with his lips gathered

tighter than ever in the rigorousness of his descriptive moderation.

 

“‘Tis a serious job to have things happen to ‘ee there,” said a woman

behind.

 

“‘Ye are to declare it,’ was the parson’s words,” Fairway continued.

“And then up stood a woman at my side–a-touching of me. ‘Well, be

damned if there isn’t Mis’ess Yeobright a-standing up,’ I said to

myself. Yes, neighbours, though I was in the temple of prayer that’s

what I said. ‘Tis against my conscience to curse and swear in company,

and I hope any woman here will overlook it. Still what I did say I did

say, and ‘twould be a lie if I didn’t own it.”

 

“So ‘twould, neighbour Fairway.”

 

“‘Be damned if there isn’t Mis’ess Yeobright a-standing up,’ I said,”

the narrator repeated, giving out the bad word with the same passionless

severity of face as before, which proved how entirely necessity and not

gusto had to do with the iteration. “And the next thing I heard was, ‘I

forbid the banns,’ from her. ‘I’ll speak to you after the service,’

said the parson, in quite a homely way–yes, turning all at once into a

common man no holier than you or I. Ah, her face was pale! Maybe you

can call to mind that monument in Weatherbury church–the cross-legged

soldier that have had his arm knocked away by the schoolchildren? Well,

he would about have matched that woman’s face, when she said, ‘I forbid

the banns.'”

 

The audience cleared their throats and tossed a few stalks into the

fire, not because these deeds were urgent, but to give themselves time

to weigh the moral of the story.

 

“I’m sure when I heard they’d been forbid I felt as glad as if anybody

had gied me sixpence,” said an earnest voice–that of Olly Dowden, a

woman who lived by making heath brooms, or besoms. Her nature was to be

civil to enemies as well as to friends, and grateful to all the world

for letting her remain alive.

 

“And now the maid have married him just the same,” said Humphrey.

 

“After that Mis’ess Yeobright came round and was quite agreeable,”

Fairway resumed, with an unheeding air, to show that his words were no

appendage to Humphrey’s, but the result of independent reflection.

 

“Supposing they were ashamed, I don’t see why they shouldn’t have done

it here-right,” said a wide-spread woman whose stays creaked like

shoes whenever she stooped or turned. “‘Tis well to call the neighbours

together and to hae a good racket once now and then; and it may as

well be when there’s a wedding as at tide-times. I don’t care for close

ways.”

 

“Ah, now, you’d hardly believe it, but I don’t care for gay weddings,”

said Timothy Fairway, his eyes again travelling round. “I hardly blame

Thomasin Yeobright and neighbour Wildeve for doing it quiet, if I must

own it. A wedding at home means five and six-handed reels by the hour;

and they do a man’s legs no good when he’s over forty.”

 

“True. Once at the woman’s house you can hardly say nay to being one in

a jig, knowing all the time that you be expected to make yourself worth

your victuals.”

 

“You be bound to dance at Christmas because ’tis the time o’ year; you

must dance at weddings because ’tis the time o’ life. At christenings

folk will even smuggle in a reel or two, if ’tis no further on than the

first or second chiel. And this is not naming the songs you’ve got to

sing….For my part I like a good hearty funeral as well as anything.

You’ve as splendid victuals and drink as at other parties, and even

better. And it don’t wear your legs to stumps in talking over a poor

fellow’s ways as it do to stand up in hornpipes.”

 

“Nine folks out of ten would own ’twas going too far to dance then, I

suppose?” suggested Grandfer Cantle.

 

“‘Tis the only sort of party a staid man can feel safe at after the mug

have been round a few times.”

 

“Well, I can’t understand a quiet ladylike little body like Tamsin

Yeobright caring to be married in such a mean way,” said Susan Nunsuch,

the wide woman, who preferred the original subject. “‘Tis worse than the

poorest do. And I shouldn’t have cared about the man, though some may

say he’s good-looking.”

 

“To give him his due he’s a clever, learned fellow in his way–a’most as

clever as Clym Yeobright used to be. He was brought up to better things

than keeping the Quiet Woman. An engineer–that’s what the man was, as

we know; but he threw away his chance, and so ‘a took a public house to

live. His learning was no use to him at all.”

 

“Very often the case,” said Olly, the besom-maker. “And yet how people

do strive after it and get it! The class of folk that couldn’t use to

make a round O to save their bones from the pit can write their names

now without a sputter of the pen, oftentimes without a single blot–what

do I say?–why, almost without a desk to lean their stomachs and elbows

upon.”

 

“True–’tis amazing what a polish the world have been brought to,” said

Humphrey.

 

“Why, afore I went a soldier in the Bang-up Locals (as we was called),

in the year four,” chimed in Grandfer Cantle brightly, “I didn’t know no

more what the world was like than the commonest man among ye. And now,

jown it all, I won’t say what I bain’t fit for, hey?”

 

“Couldst sign the book, no doubt,” said Fairway, “if wast young enough

to join hands with a woman again, like Wildeve and Mis’ess Tamsin,

which is more than Humph there could do, for he follows his father in

learning. Ah, Humph, well I can mind when I was married how I zid thy

father’s mark staring me in the face as I went to put down my name. He

and your mother were the couple married just afore we were and there

stood they father’s cross with arms stretched out like a great banging

scarecrow. What a terrible black cross that was–thy father’s very

likeness in en! To save my soul I couldn’t help laughing when I zid en,

though all the time I was as hot as dog-days, what with the marrying,

and what with the woman a-hanging to me, and what with Jack Changley

and a lot more chaps grinning at me through church window. But the next

moment a strawmote would have knocked me down, for I called to mind

that if thy father and mother had had high words once, they’d been at

it twenty times since they’d been man and wife, and I zid myself as the

next poor stunpoll to get into the same mess….Ah–well, what a day

’twas!”

 

“Wildeve is older than Tamsin Yeobright by a good-few summers. A pretty

maid too she is. A young woman with a home must be a fool to tear her

smock for a man like that.”

 

The speaker, a peat- or turf-cutter, who had newly joined the group,

carried across his shoulder the singular heart-shaped spade of large

dimensions used in that species of labour, and its well-whetted edge

gleamed like a silver bow in the beams of the fire.

 

“A hundred maidens would have had him if he’d asked ’em,” said the wide

woman.

 

“Didst ever know a man, neighbour, that no woman at all would marry?”

inquired Humphrey.

 

“I never did,” said the turf-cutter.

 

“Nor I,” said another.

 

“Nor I,” said Grandfer Cantle.

 

“Well, now, I did once,” said Timothy Fairway, adding more firmness to

one of his legs. “I did know of such a man. But only once, mind.” He

gave his throat a thorough rake round, as if it were the duty of every

person not to be mistaken through thickness of voice. “Yes, I knew of

such a man,” he said.

 

“And what ghastly gallicrow might the poor fellow have been like, Master

Fairway?” asked the turf-cutter.

 

“Well, ‘a was neither a deaf man, nor a dumb man, nor a blind man. What

‘a was I don’t say.”

 

“Is he known in these parts?” said Olly Dowden.

 

“Hardly,” said Timothy; “but I name no name….Come, keep the fire up

there, youngsters.”

 

“Whatever is Christian Cantle’s teeth a-chattering for?” said a boy from

amid the smoke and shades on the other side of the blaze. “Be ye a-cold,

Christian?”

 

A thin jibbering voice was heard to reply, “No, not at all.”

 

“Come forward, Christian, and show yourself. I didn’t know you were

here,” said Fairway, with a humane look across towards that quarter.

 

Thus requested, a faltering man, with reedy hair, no shoulders, and a

great quantity of wrist and ankle beyond his clothes, advanced a step or

two by his own will, and was pushed by the will of others half a dozen

steps more. He was Grandfer Cantle’s youngest son.

 

“What be ye quaking for, Christian?” said the turf-cutter kindly.

 

“I’m the man.”

 

“What man?”

 

“The man no woman will marry.”

 

“The deuce you be!” said Timothy Fairway, enlarging his gaze to cover

Christian’s whole surface and a great deal more, Grandfer Cantle

meanwhile staring as a hen stares at the duck she has hatched.

 

“Yes, I be he; and it makes me afeard,” said Christian. “D’ye think

’twill hurt me? I shall always say I don’t care, and swear to it, though

I do care all the while.”

 

“Well, be damned if this isn’t the queerest start ever I know’d,” said

Mr. Fairway. “I didn’t mean you at all. There’s another in the country,

then! Why did ye reveal yer misfortune, Christian?”

 

“‘Twas to be if ’twas, I suppose. I can’t help it, can I?” He turned

upon them his painfully circular eyes, surrounded by concentric lines

like targets.

 

“No, that’s true. But ’tis a melancholy thing, and my blood ran cold

when you spoke, for I felt there were two poor fellows where I had

thought only one. ‘Tis a sad thing for ye, Christian. How’st know the

women won’t hae thee?”

 

“I’ve asked ’em.”

 

“Sure I should never have thought you had the face. Well, and what did

the last one say to ye? Nothing that can’t be got over, perhaps, after

all?”

 

“‘Get out of my sight, you slack-twisted, slim-looking maphrotight

fool,’ was the woman’s words to me.”

 

“Not encouraging, I own,” said Fairway. “‘Get out of my sight, you

slack-twisted, slim-looking maphrotight fool,’ is rather a hard way of

saying No. But even that might be overcome by time and patience, so as

to let a few grey hairs show themselves in the hussy’s head. How old be

you, Christian?”

 

“Thirty-one last tatie-digging, Mister Fairway.”

 

“Not a boy–not a boy. Still there’s hope yet.”

 

“That’s my age by baptism, because that’s put down in the great book of

the Judgment that they keep in church vestry; but Mother told me I was

born some time afore I was christened.”

 

“Ah!”

 

“But she couldn’t tell when, to save her life, except that there was no

moon.”

 

“No moon–that’s bad. Hey, neighbours, that’s bad for him!”

 

“Yes, ’tis bad,” said Grandfer Cantle, shaking his head.

 

“Mother know’d ’twas no moon, for she asked another woman that had

an almanac, as she did whenever a boy was born to her, because of the

saying, ‘No moon, no man,’ which made her afeard every man-child she

had. Do ye really think it serious, Mister Fairway, that there was no

moon?”

 

“Yes. ‘No moon, no man.’ ‘Tis one of the truest sayings ever spit out.

The boy never comes to anything that’s born at new moon. A bad job for

thee, Christian, that you should have showed your nose then of all days

in the month.”

 

“I suppose the moon was terrible full when you were born?” said

Christian, with a look of hopeless admiration at Fairway.

 

“Well, ‘a was not new,” Mr. Fairway replied, with a disinterested gaze.

 

“I’d sooner go without drink at Lammas-tide than be a man of no moon,”

continued Christian, in the same shattered recitative. “‘Tis said I be

only the rames of a man, and no good for my race at all; and I suppose

that’s the cause o’t.”

 

“Ay,” said Grandfer Cantle, somewhat subdued in spirit; “and yet his

mother cried for scores of hours when ‘a was a boy, for fear he should

outgrow hisself and go for a soldier.”

 

“Well, there’s many just as bad as he.” said Fairway.

 

“Wethers must live their time as well as other sheep, poor soul.”

 

“So perhaps I shall rub on? Ought I to be afeared o’ nights, Master

Fairway?”

 

“You’ll have to lie alone all your life; and ’tis not to married couples

but to single sleepers that a ghost shows himself when ‘a do come. One

has been seen lately, too. A very strange one.”

 

“No–don’t talk about it if ’tis agreeable of ye not to! ‘Twill make my

skin crawl when I think of it in bed alone. But you will–ah, you will,

I know, Timothy; and I shall dream all night o’t! A very strange one?

What sort of a spirit did ye mean when ye said, a very strange one,

Timothy?–no, no–don’t tell me.”

 

“I don’t half believe in spirits myself. But I think it ghostly

enough–what I was told. ‘Twas a little boy that zid it.”

 

“What was it like?–no, don’t–”

 

“A red one. Yes, most ghosts be white; but this is as if it had been

dipped in blood.”

 

Christian drew a deep breath without letting it expand his body, and

Humphrey said, “Where has it been seen?”

 

“Not exactly here; but in this same heth. But ’tisn’t a thing to talk

about. What do ye say,” continued Fairway in brisker tones, and turning

upon them as if the idea had not been Grandfer Cantle’s–“what do you

say to giving the new man and wife a bit of a song tonight afore we go

to bed–being their wedding-day? When folks are just married ’tis as

well to look glad o’t, since looking sorry won’t unjoin ’em. I am no

drinker, as we know, but when the womenfolk and youngsters have gone

home we can drop down across to the Quiet Woman, and strike up a ballet

in front of the married folks’ door. ‘Twill please the young wife, and

that’s what I should like to do, for many’s the skinful I’ve had at her

hands when she lived with her aunt at Blooms-End.”

 

“Hey? And so we will!” said Grandfer Cantle, turning so briskly that his

copper seals swung extravagantly. “I’m as dry as a kex with biding up

here in the wind, and I haven’t seen the colour of drink since

nammet-time today. ‘Tis said that the last brew at the Woman is very

pretty drinking. And, neighbours, if we should be a little late in the

finishing, why, tomorrow’s Sunday, and we can sleep it off?”

 

“Grandfer Cantle! you take things very careless for an old man,” said

the wide woman.

 

“I take things careless; I do–too careless to please the women! Klk!

I’ll sing the ‘Jovial Crew,’ or any other song, when a weak old man

would cry his eyes out. Jown it; I am up for anything.

 

       “The king’ look’d o’-ver his left’ shoul-der’,

         And a grim’ look look’-ed hee’,

       Earl Mar’-shal, he said’, but for’ my oath’

         Or hang’-ed thou’ shouldst bee’.”

 

“Well, that’s what we’ll do,” said Fairway. “We’ll give ’em a song, an’

it please the Lord. What’s the good of Thomasin’s cousin Clym a-coming

home after the deed’s done? He should have come afore, if so be he

wanted to stop it, and marry her himself.”

 

“Perhaps he’s coming to bide with his mother a little time, as she must

feel lonely now the maid’s gone.”

 

“Now, ’tis very odd, but I never feel lonely–no, not at all,” said

Grandfer Cantle. “I am as brave in the nighttime as a’ admiral!”

 

The bonfire was by this time beginning to sink low, for the fuel had not

been of that substantial sort which can support a blaze long. Most

of the other fires within the wide horizon were also dwindling weak.

Attentive observation of their brightness, colour, and length of

existence would have revealed the quality of the material burnt, and

through that, to some extent the natural produce of the district in

which each bonfire was situate. The clear, kingly effulgence that had

characterized the majority expressed a heath and furze country like

their own, which in one direction extended an unlimited number of miles;

the rapid flares and extinctions at other points of the compass showed

the lightest of fuel–straw, beanstalks, and the usual waste from

arable land. The most enduring of all–steady unaltering eyes like

Planets–signified wood, such as hazel-branches, thorn-faggots, and

stout billets. Fires of the last-mentioned materials were rare, and

though comparatively small in magnitude beside the transient blazes, now

began to get the best of them by mere long continuance. The great ones

had perished, but these remained. They occupied the remotest visible

positions–sky-backed summits rising out of rich coppice and plantation

districts to the north, where the soil was different, and heath foreign

and strange.

 

Save one; and this was the nearest of any, the moon of the whole shining

throng. It lay in a direction precisely opposite to that of the little

window in the vale below. Its nearness was such that, notwithstanding

its actual smallness, its glow infinitely transcended theirs.

 

This quiet eye had attracted attention from time to time; and when their

own fire had become sunken and dim it attracted more; some even of

the wood fires more recently lighted had reached their decline, but no

change was perceptible here.

 

“To be sure, how near that fire is!” said Fairway. “Seemingly. I can see

a fellow of some sort walking round it. Little and good must be said of

that fire, surely.”

 

“I can throw a stone there,” said the boy.

 

“And so can I!” said Grandfer Cantle.

 

“No, no, you can’t, my sonnies. That fire is not much less than a mile

off, for all that ‘a seems so near.”

 

“‘Tis in the heath, but no furze,” said the turf-cutter.

 

“‘Tis cleft-wood, that’s what ’tis,” said Timothy Fairway. “Nothing

would burn like that except clean timber. And ’tis on the knap afore the

old captain’s house at Mistover. Such a queer mortal as that man is! To

have a little fire inside your own bank and ditch, that nobody else may

enjoy it or come anigh it! And what a zany an old chap must be, to light

a bonfire when there’s no youngsters to please.”

 

“Cap’n Vye has been for a long walk today, and is quite tired out,” said

Grandfer Cantle, “so ’tisn’t likely to be he.”

 

“And he would hardly afford good fuel like that,” said the wide woman.

 

“Then it must be his granddaughter,” said Fairway. “Not that a body of

her age can want a fire much.”

 

“She is very strange in her ways, living up there by herself, and such

things please her,” said Susan.

 

“She’s a well-favoured maid enough,” said Humphrey the furze-cutter,

“especially when she’s got one of her dandy gowns on.”

 

“That’s true,” said Fairway. “Well, let her bonfire burn an’t will. Ours

is well-nigh out by the look o’t.”

 

“How dark ’tis now the fire’s gone down!” said Christian Cantle,

looking behind him with his hare eyes. “Don’t ye think we’d better get

home-along, neighbours? The heth isn’t haunted, I know; but we’d better

get home….Ah, what was that?”

 

“Only the wind,” said the turf-cutter.

 

“I don’t think Fifth-of-Novembers ought to be kept up by night except in

towns. It should be by day in outstep, ill-accounted places like this!”

 

“Nonsense, Christian. Lift up your spirits like a man! Susy, dear, you

and I will have a jig–hey, my honey?–before ’tis quite too dark to see

how well-favoured you be still, though so many summers have passed since

your husband, a son of a witch, snapped you up from me.”

 

This was addressed to Susan Nunsuch; and the next circumstance of which

the beholders were conscious was a vision of the matron’s broad form

whisking off towards the space whereon the fire had been kindled. She

was lifted bodily by Mr. Fairway’s arm, which had been flung round her

waist before she had become aware of his intention. The site of the fire

was now merely a circle of ashes flecked with red embers and sparks, the

furze having burnt completely away. Once within the circle he whirled

her round and round in a dance. She was a woman noisily constructed;

in addition to her enclosing framework of whalebone and lath, she wore

pattens summer and winter, in wet weather and in dry, to preserve her

boots from wear; and when Fairway began to jump about with her, the

clicking of the pattens, the creaking of the stays, and her screams of

surprise, formed a very audible concert.

 

“I’ll crack thy numskull for thee, you mandy chap!” said Mrs. Nunsuch,

as she helplessly danced round with him, her feet playing like

drumsticks among the sparks. “My ankles were all in a fever before, from

walking through that prickly furze, and now you must make ’em worse with

these vlankers!”

 

The vagary of Timothy Fairway was infectious. The turf-cutter seized old

Olly Dowden, and, somewhat more gently, poussetted with her likewise.

The young men were not slow to imitate the example of their elders, and

seized the maids; Grandfer Cantle and his stick jigged in the form of a

three-legged object among the rest; and in half a minute all that could

be seen on Rainbarrow was a whirling of dark shapes amid a boiling

confusion of sparks, which leapt around the dancers as high as their

waists. The chief noises were women’s shrill cries, men’s laughter,

Susan’s stays and pattens, Olly Dowden’s “heu-heu-heu!” and the

strumming of the wind upon the furze-bushes, which formed a kind of tune

to the demoniac measure they trod. Christian alone stood aloof, uneasily

rocking himself as he murmured, “They ought not to do it–how the

vlankers do fly! ’tis tempting the Wicked one, ’tis.”

 

“What was that?” said one of the lads, stopping.

 

“Ah–where?” said Christian, hastily closing up to the rest.

 

The dancers all lessened their speed.

 

“‘Twas behind you, Christian, that I heard it–down here.”

 

“Yes–’tis behind me!” Christian said. “Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John,

bless the bed that I lie on; four angels guard–”

 

“Hold your tongue. What is it?” said Fairway.

 

“Hoi-i-i-i!” cried a voice from the darkness.

 

“Halloo-o-o-o!” said Fairway.

 

“Is there any cart track up across here to Mis’ess Yeobright’s, of

Blooms-End?” came to them in the same voice, as a long, slim indistinct

figure approached the barrow.

 

“Ought we not to run home as hard as we can, neighbours, as ’tis getting

late?” said Christian. “Not run away from one another, you know; run

close together, I mean.” “Scrape up a few stray locks of furze, and make

a blaze, so that we can see who the man is,” said Fairway.

 

When the flame arose it revealed a young man in tight raiment, and red

from top to toe. “Is there a track across here to Mis’ess Yeobright’s

house?” he repeated.

 

“Ay–keep along the path down there.”

 

“I mean a way two horses and a van can travel over?”

 

“Well, yes; you can get up the vale below here with time. The track is

rough, but if you’ve got a light your horses may pick along wi’ care.

Have ye brought your cart far up, neighbour reddleman?”

 

“I’ve left it in the bottom, about half a mile back, I stepped on in

front to make sure of the way, as ’tis night-time, and I han’t been here

for so long.”

 

“Oh, well you can get up,” said Fairway. “What a turn it did give me

when I saw him!” he added to the whole group, the reddleman included.

“Lord’s sake, I thought, whatever fiery mommet is this come to trouble

us? No slight to your looks, reddleman, for ye bain’t bad-looking in the

groundwork, though the finish is queer. My meaning is just to say how

curious I felt. I half thought it ’twas the devil or the red ghost the

boy told of.”

 

“It gied me a turn likewise,” said Susan Nunsuch, “for I had a dream

last night of a death’s head.”

 

“Don’t ye talk o’t no more,” said Christian. “If he had a handkerchief

over his head he’d look for all the world like the Devil in the picture

of the Temptation.”

 

“Well, thank you for telling me,” said the young reddleman, smiling

faintly. “And good night t’ye all.”

 

He withdrew from their sight down the barrow.

 

“I fancy I’ve seen that young man’s face before,” said Humphrey. “But

where, or how, or what his name is, I don’t know.”

 

The reddleman had not been gone more than a few minutes when another

person approached the partially revived bonfire. It proved to be a

well-known and respected widow of the neighbourhood, of a standing which

can only be expressed by the word genteel. Her face, encompassed by

the blackness of the receding heath, showed whitely, and with-out

half-lights, like a cameo.

 

She was a woman of middle-age, with well-formed features of the type

usually found where perspicacity is the chief quality enthroned within.

At moments she seemed to be regarding issues from a Nebo denied to

others around. She had something of an estranged mien; the solitude

exhaled from the heath was concentrated in this face that had risen from

it. The air with which she looked at the heathmen betokened a certain

unconcern at their presence, or at what might be their opinions of

her for walking in that lonely spot at such an hour, thus indirectly

implying that in some respect or other they were not up to her level.

The explanation lay in the fact that though her husband had been a small

farmer she herself was a curate’s daughter, who had once dreamt of doing

better things.

 

Persons with any weight of character carry, like planets, their

atmospheres along with them in their orbits; and the matron who entered

now upon the scene could, and usually did, bring her own tone into a

company. Her normal manner among the heathfolk had that reticence which

results from the consciousness of superior communicative power. But

the effect of coming into society and light after lonely wandering in

darkness is a sociability in the comer above its usual pitch, expressed

in the features even more than in words.

 

“Why, ’tis Mis’ess Yeobright,” said Fairway. “Mis’ess Yeobright, not ten

minutes ago a man was here asking for you–a reddleman.”

 

“What did he want?” said she.

 

“He didn’t tell us.”

 

“Something to sell, I suppose; what it can be I am at a loss to

understand.”

 

“I am glad to hear that your son Mr. Clym is coming home at Christmas,

ma’am,” said Sam, the turf-cutter. “What a dog he used to be for

bonfires!”

 

“Yes. I believe he is coming,” she said.

 

“He must be a fine fellow by this time,” said Fairway.

 

“He is a man now,” she replied quietly.

 

“‘Tis very lonesome for ‘ee in the heth tonight, mis’ess,” said

Christian, coming from the seclusion he had hitherto maintained. “Mind

you don’t get lost. Egdon Heth is a bad place to get lost in, and the

winds do huffle queerer tonight than ever I heard ’em afore. Them that

know Egdon best have been pixy-led here at times.”

 

“Is that you, Christian?” said Mrs. Yeobright. “What made you hide away

from me?”

 

“‘Twas that I didn’t know you in this light, mis’ess; and being a man of

the mournfullest make, I was scared a little, that’s all. Oftentimes if

you could see how terrible down I get in my mind, ‘twould make ‘ee quite

nervous for fear I should die by my hand.”

 

“You don’t take after your father,” said Mrs. Yeobright, looking towards

the fire, where Grandfer Cantle, with some want of originality, was

dancing by himself among the sparks, as the others had done before.

 

“Now, Grandfer,” said Timothy Fairway, “we are ashamed of ye. A reverent

old patriarch man as you be–seventy if a day–to go hornpiping like

that by yourself!”

 

“A harrowing old man, Mis’ess Yeobright,” said Christian despondingly.

“I wouldn’t live with him a week, so playward as he is, if I could get

away.”

 

“‘Twould be more seemly in ye to stand still and welcome Mis’ess

Yeobright, and you the venerablest here, Grandfer Cantle,” said the

besom-woman.

 

“Faith, and so it would,” said the reveller checking himself

repentantly. “I’ve such a bad memory, Mis’ess Yeobright, that I forget

how I’m looked up to by the rest of ’em. My spirits must be wonderful

good, you’ll say? But not always. ‘Tis a weight upon a man to be looked

up to as commander, and I often feel it.”

 

“I am sorry to stop the talk,” said Mrs. Yeobright. “But I must be

leaving you now. I was passing down the Anglebury Road, towards my

niece’s new home, who is returning tonight with her husband; and seeing

the bonfire and hearing Olly’s voice among the rest I came up here to

learn what was going on. I should like her to walk with me, as her way

is mine.”

 

“Ay, sure, ma’am, I’m just thinking of moving,” said Olly.

 

“Why, you’ll be safe to meet the reddleman that I told ye of,” said

Fairway. “He’s only gone back to get his van. We heard that your niece

and her husband were coming straight home as soon as they were married,

and we are going down there shortly, to give ’em a song o’ welcome.”

 

“Thank you indeed,” said Mrs. Yeobright.

 

“But we shall take a shorter cut through the furze than you can go with

long clothes; so we won’t trouble you to wait.”

 

“Very well–are you ready, Olly?”

 

“Yes, ma’am. And there’s a light shining from your niece’s window, see.

It will help to keep us in the path.”

 

She indicated the faint light at the bottom of the valley which Fairway

had pointed out; and the two women descended the tumulus.

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