The Return of the Native; 07080910

7–Queen of Night

Eustacia Vye was the raw material of a divinity. On Olympus she would
have done well with a little preparation. She had the passions and
instincts which make a model goddess, that is, those which make not
quite a model woman. Had it been possible for the earth and mankind to
be entirely in her grasp for a while, she had handled the distaff, the
spindle, and the shears at her own free will, few in the world would
have noticed the change of government. There would have been the same
inequality of lot, the same heaping up of favours here, of contumely
there, the same generosity before justice, the same perpetual dilemmas,
the same captious alteration of caresses and blows that we endure now.

She was in person full-limbed and somewhat heavy; without ruddiness, as
without pallor; and soft to the touch as a cloud. To see her hair was
to fancy that a whole winter did not contain darkness enough to form
its shadow–it closed over her forehead like nightfall extinguishing the
western glow.

Her nerves extended into those tresses, and her temper could always
be softened by stroking them down. When her hair was brushed she would
instantly sink into stillness and look like the Sphinx. If, in passing
under one of the Egdon banks, any of its thick skeins were caught,
as they sometimes were, by a prickly tuft of the large Ulex
Europoeus–which will act as a sort of hairbrush–she would go back a
few steps, and pass against it a second time.

She had pagan eyes, full of nocturnal mysteries, and their light, as
it came and went, and came again, was partially hampered by their
oppressive lids and lashes; and of these the under lid was much fuller
than it usually is with English women. This enabled her to indulge in
reverie without seeming to do so–she might have been believed capable
of sleeping without closing them up. Assuming that the souls of men and
women were visible essences, you could fancy the colour of Eustacia’s
soul to be flamelike. The sparks from it that rose into her dark pupils
gave the same impression.

The mouth seemed formed less to speak than to quiver, less to quiver
than to kiss. Some might have added, less to kiss than to curl. Viewed
sideways, the closing-line of her lips formed, with almost geometric
precision, the curve so well known in the arts of design as the
cima-recta, or ogee. The sight of such a flexible bend as that on grim
Egdon was quite an apparition. It was felt at once that the mouth did
not come over from Sleswig with a band of Saxon pirates whose lips met
like the two halves of a muffin. One had fancied that such lip-curves
were mostly lurking underground in the South as fragments of forgotten
marbles. So fine were the lines of her lips that, though full, each
corner of her mouth was as clearly cut as the point of a spear. This
keenness of corner was only blunted when she was given over to sudden
fits of gloom, one of the phases of the night-side of sentiment which
she knew too well for her years.

Her presence brought memories of such things as Bourbon roses, rubies,
and tropical midnight; her moods recalled lotus-eaters and the march in
Athalie; her motions, the ebb and flow of the sea; her voice, the viola.
In a dim light, and with a slight rearrangement of her hair, her general
figure might have stood for that of either of the higher female deities.
The new moon behind her head, an old helmet upon it, a diadem of
accidental dewdrops round her brow, would have been adjuncts sufficient
to strike the note of Artemis, Athena, or Hera respectively, with as
close an approximation to the antique as that which passes muster on
many respected canvases.

But celestial imperiousness, love, wrath, and fervour had proved to be
somewhat thrown away on netherward Egdon. Her power was limited, and the
consciousness of this limitation had biassed her development. Egdon was
her Hades, and since coming there she had imbibed much of what was dark
in its tone, though inwardly and eternally unreconciled thereto. Her
appearance accorded well with this smouldering rebelliousness, and
the shady splendour of her beauty was the real surface of the sad and
stifled warmth within her. A true Tartarean dignity sat upon her brow,
and not factitiously or with marks of constraint, for it had grown in
her with years.

Across the upper part of her head she wore a thin fillet of black
velvet, restraining the luxuriance of her shady hair, in a way which
added much to this class of majesty by irregularly clouding her
forehead. “Nothing can embellish a beautiful face more than a narrow
band drawn over the brow,” says Richter. Some of the neighbouring
girls wore coloured ribbon for the same purpose, and sported metallic
ornaments elsewhere; but if anyone suggested coloured ribbon and
metallic ornaments to Eustacia Vye she laughed and went on.

Why did a woman of this sort live on Egdon Heath? Budmouth was her
native place, a fashionable seaside resort at that date. She was the
daughter of the bandmaster of a regiment which had been quartered
there–a Corfiote by birth, and a fine musician–who met his future
wife during her trip thither with her father the captain, a man of good
family. The marriage was scarcely in accord with the old man’s wishes,
for the bandmaster’s pockets were as light as his occupation. But the
musician did his best; adopted his wife’s name, made England permanently
his home, took great trouble with his child’s education, the expenses
of which were defrayed by the grandfather, and throve as the chief local
musician till her mother’s death, when he left off thriving, drank, and
died also. The girl was left to the care of her grandfather, who, since
three of his ribs became broken in a shipwreck, had lived in this airy
perch on Egdon, a spot which had taken his fancy because the house was
to be had for next to nothing, and because a remote blue tinge on
the horizon between the hills, visible from the cottage door, was
traditionally believed to be the English Channel. She hated the change;
she felt like one banished; but here she was forced to abide.

Thus it happened that in Eustacia’s brain were juxtaposed the strangest
assortment of ideas, from old time and from new. There was no middle
distance in her perspective–romantic recollections of sunny afternoons
on an esplanade, with military bands, officers, and gallants around,
stood like gilded letters upon the dark tablet of surrounding Egdon.
Every bizarre effect that could result from the random intertwining of
watering-place glitter with the grand solemnity of a heath, was to be
found in her. Seeing nothing of human life now, she imagined all the
more of what she had seen.

Where did her dignity come from? By a latent vein from Alcinous’ line,
her father hailing from Phaeacia’s isle?–or from Fitzalan and De Vere,
her maternal grandfather having had a cousin in the peerage? Perhaps it
was the gift of Heaven–a happy convergence of natural laws. Among other
things opportunity had of late years been denied her of learning to
be undignified, for she lived lonely. Isolation on a heath renders
vulgarity well-nigh impossible. It would have been as easy for the
heath-ponies, bats, and snakes to be vulgar as for her. A narrow life in
Budmouth might have completely demeaned her.

The only way to look queenly without realms or hearts to queen it over
is to look as if you had lost them; and Eustacia did that to a triumph.
In the captain’s cottage she could suggest mansions she had never seen.
Perhaps that was because she frequented a vaster mansion than any of
them, the open hills. Like the summer condition of the place around her,
she was an embodiment of the phrase “a populous solitude”–apparently so
listless, void, and quiet, she was really busy and full.

To be loved to madness–such was her great desire. Love was to her the
one cordial which could drive away the eating loneliness of her days.
And she seemed to long for the abstraction called passionate love more
than for any particular lover.

She could show a most reproachful look at times, but it was directed
less against human beings than against certain creatures of her mind,
the chief of these being Destiny, through whose interference she dimly
fancied it arose that love alighted only on gliding youth–that any love
she might win would sink simultaneously with the sand in the glass.
She thought of it with an ever-growing consciousness of cruelty, which
tended to breed actions of reckless unconventionality, framed to snatch
a year’s, a week’s, even an hour’s passion from anywhere while it could
be won. Through want of it she had sung without being merry, possessed
without enjoying, outshone without triumphing. Her loneliness deepened
her desire. On Egdon, coldest and meanest kisses were at famine prices,
and where was a mouth matching hers to be found?

Fidelity in love for fidelity’s sake had less attraction for her than
for most women; fidelity because of love’s grip had much. A blaze of
love, and extinction, was better than a lantern glimmer of the same
which should last long years. On this head she knew by prevision what
most women learn only by experience–she had mentally walked round love,
told the towers thereof, considered its palaces, and concluded that love
was but a doleful joy. Yet she desired it, as one in a desert would be
thankful for brackish water.

She often repeated her prayers; not at particular times, but, like the
unaffectedly devout, when she desired to pray. Her prayer was always
spontaneous, and often ran thus, “O deliver my heart from this fearful
gloom and loneliness; send me great love from somewhere, else I shall
die.”

Her high gods were William the Conqueror, Strafford, and Napoleon
Buonaparte, as they had appeared in the Lady’s History used at the
establishment in which she was educated. Had she been a mother she would
have christened her boys such names as Saul or Sisera in preference to
Jacob or David, neither of whom she admired. At school she had used
to side with the Philistines in several battles, and had wondered if
Pontius Pilate were as handsome as he was frank and fair.

Thus she was a girl of some forwardness of mind, indeed, weighed in
relation to her situation among the very rearward of thinkers, very
original. Her instincts towards social non-comformity were at the root
of this. In the matter of holidays, her mood was that of horses who,
when turned out to grass, enjoy looking upon their kind at work on the
highway. She only valued rest to herself when it came in the midst of
other people’s labour. Hence she hated Sundays when all was at rest, and
often said they would be the death of her. To see the heathmen in their
Sunday condition, that is, with their hands in their pockets, their
boots newly oiled, and not laced up (a particularly Sunday sign),
walking leisurely among the turves and furze-faggots they had cut during
the week, and kicking them critically as if their use were unknown, was
a fearful heaviness to her. To relieve the tedium of this untimely day
she would overhaul the cupboards containing her grandfather’s old charts
and other rubbish, humming Saturday-night ballads of the country people
the while. But on Saturday nights she would frequently sing a psalm, and
it was always on a weekday that she read the Bible, that she might be
unoppressed with a sense of doing her duty.

Such views of life were to some extent the natural begettings of her
situation upon her nature. To dwell on a heath without studying its
meanings was like wedding a foreigner without learning his tongue. The
subtle beauties of the heath were lost to Eustacia; she only caught its
vapours. An environment which would have made a contented woman a poet,
a suffering woman a devotee, a pious woman a psalmist, even a giddy
woman thoughtful, made a rebellious woman saturnine.

Eustacia had got beyond the vision of some marriage of inexpressible
glory; yet, though her emotions were in full vigour, she cared for no
meaner union. Thus we see her in a strange state of isolation. To have
lost the godlike conceit that we may do what we will, and not to have
acquired a homely zest for doing what we can, shows a grandeur of temper
which cannot be objected to in the abstract, for it denotes a mind
that, though disappointed, forswears compromise. But, if congenial to
philosophy, it is apt to be dangerous to the commonwealth. In a world
where doing means marrying, and the commonwealth is one of hearts and
hands, the same peril attends the condition.

And so we see our Eustacia–for at times she was not altogether
unlovable–arriving at that stage of enlightenment which feels that
nothing is worth while, and filling up the spare hours of her existence
by idealizing Wildeve for want of a better object. This was the sole
reason of his ascendency: she knew it herself. At moments her pride
rebelled against her passion for him, and she even had longed to be
free. But there was only one circumstance which could dislodge him, and
that was the advent of a greater man.

For the rest, she suffered much from depression of spirits, and took
slow walks to recover them, in which she carried her grandfather’s
telescope and her grandmother’s hourglass–the latter because of a
peculiar pleasure she derived from watching a material representation of
time’s gradual glide away. She seldom schemed, but when she did scheme,
her plans showed rather the comprehensive strategy of a general than the
small arts called womanish, though she could utter oracles of Delphian
ambiguity when she did not choose to be direct. In heaven she will
probably sit between the Heloises and the Cleopatras.

8–Those Who Are Found Where There Is Said to Be Nobody

As soon as the sad little boy had withdrawn from the fire he clasped
the money tight in the palm of his hand, as if thereby to fortify his
courage, and began to run. There was really little danger in allowing a
child to go home alone on this part of Egdon Heath. The distance to
the boy’s house was not more than three-eighths of a mile, his father’s
cottage, and one other a few yards further on, forming part of the small
hamlet of Mistover Knap: the third and only remaining house was that
of Captain Vye and Eustacia, which stood quite away from the small
cottages and was the loneliest of lonely houses on these thinly
populated slopes.

He ran until he was out of breath, and then, becoming more courageous,
walked leisurely along, singing in an old voice a little song about a
sailor-boy and a fair one, and bright gold in store. In the middle of
this the child stopped–from a pit under the hill ahead of him shone a
light, whence proceeded a cloud of floating dust and a smacking noise.

Only unusual sights and sounds frightened the boy. The shrivelled voice
of the heath did not alarm him, for that was familiar. The thornbushes
which arose in his path from time to time were less satisfactory, for
they whistled gloomily, and had a ghastly habit after dark of putting
on the shapes of jumping madmen, sprawling giants, and hideous cripples.
Lights were not uncommon this evening, but the nature of all of them was
different from this. Discretion rather than terror prompted the boy
to turn back instead of passing the light, with a view of asking Miss
Eustacia Vye to let her servant accompany him home.

When the boy had reascended to the top of the valley he found the fire
to be still burning on the bank, though lower than before. Beside it,
instead of Eustacia’s solitary form, he saw two persons, the second
being a man. The boy crept along under the bank to ascertain from
the nature of the proceedings if it would be prudent to interrupt so
splendid a creature as Miss Eustacia on his poor trivial account.

After listening under the bank for some minutes to the talk he turned in
a perplexed and doubting manner and began to withdraw as silently as
he had come. That he did not, upon the whole, think it advisable to
interrupt her conversation with Wildeve, without being prepared to bear
the whole weight of her displeasure, was obvious.

Here was a Scyllaeo-Charybdean position for a poor boy. Pausing when
again safe from discovery, he finally decided to face the pit phenomenon
as the lesser evil. With a heavy sigh he retraced the slope, and
followed the path he had followed before.

The light had gone, the rising dust had disappeared–he hoped for ever.
He marched resolutely along, and found nothing to alarm him till, coming
within a few yards of the sandpit, he heard a slight noise in front,
which led him to halt. The halt was but momentary, for the noise
resolved itself into the steady bites of two animals grazing.

“Two he’th-croppers down here,” he said aloud. “I have never known ’em
come down so far afore.”

The animals were in the direct line of his path, but that the child
thought little of; he had played round the fetlocks of horses from his
infancy. On coming nearer, however, the boy was somewhat surprised to
find that the little creatures did not run off, and that each wore a
clog, to prevent his going astray; this signified that they had been
broken in. He could now see the interior of the pit, which, being in
the side of the hill, had a level entrance. In the innermost corner the
square outline of a van appeared, with its back towards him. A light
came from the interior, and threw a moving shadow upon the vertical face
of gravel at the further side of the pit into which the vehicle faced.

The child assumed that this was the cart of a gipsy, and his dread of
those wanderers reached but to that mild pitch which titillates rather
than pains. Only a few inches of mud wall kept him and his family from
being gipsies themselves. He skirted the gravel pit at a respectful
distance, ascended the slope, and came forward upon the brow, in order
to look into the open door of the van and see the original of the
shadow.

The picture alarmed the boy. By a little stove inside the van sat a
figure red from head to heels–the man who had been Thomasin’s friend.
He was darning a stocking, which was red like the rest of him. Moreover,
as he darned he smoked a pipe, the stem and bowl of which were red also.

At this moment one of the heath-croppers feeding in the outer shadows
was audibly shaking off the clog attached to its foot. Aroused by the
sound, the reddleman laid down his stocking, lit a lantern which hung
beside him, and came out from the van. In sticking up the candle he
lifted the lantern to his face, and the light shone into the whites
of his eyes and upon his ivory teeth, which, in contrast with the
red surrounding, lent him a startling aspect enough to the gaze of a
juvenile. The boy knew too well for his peace of mind upon whose lair
he had lighted. Uglier persons than gipsies were known to cross Egdon at
times, and a reddleman was one of them.

“How I wish ’twas only a gipsy!” he murmured.

The man was by this time coming back from the horses. In his fear of
being seen the boy rendered detection certain by nervous motion. The
heather and peat stratum overhung the brow of the pit in mats, hiding
the actual verge. The boy had stepped beyond the solid ground; the
heather now gave way, and down he rolled over the scarp of grey sand to
the very foot of the man.

The red man opened the lantern and turned it upon the figure of the
prostrate boy.

“Who be ye?” he said.

“Johnny Nunsuch, master!”

“What were you doing up there?”

“I don’t know.”

“Watching me, I suppose?”

“Yes, master.”

“What did you watch me for?”

“Because I was coming home from Miss Vye’s bonfire.”

“Beest hurt?”

“No.”

“Why, yes, you be–your hand is bleeding. Come under my tilt and let me
tie it up.”

“Please let me look for my sixpence.”

“How did you come by that?”

“Miss Vye gied it to me for keeping up her bonfire.”

The sixpence was found, and the man went to the van, the boy behind,
almost holding his breath.

The man took a piece of rag from a satchel containing sewing materials,
tore off a strip, which, like everything else, was tinged red, and
proceeded to bind up the wound.

“My eyes have got foggy-like–please may I sit down, master?” said the
boy.

“To be sure, poor chap. ‘Tis enough to make you feel fainty. Sit on that
bundle.”

The man finished tying up the gash, and the boy said, “I think I’ll go
home now, master.”

“You are rather afraid of me. Do you know what I be?”

The child surveyed his vermilion figure up and down with much misgiving
and finally said, “Yes.”

“Well, what?”

“The reddleman!” he faltered.

“Yes, that’s what I be. Though there’s more than one. You little
children think there’s only one cuckoo, one fox, one giant, one devil,
and one reddleman, when there’s lots of us all.”

“Is there? You won’t carry me off in your bags, will ye, master? ‘Tis
said that the reddleman will sometimes.”

“Nonsense. All that reddlemen do is sell reddle. You see all these bags
at the back of my cart? They are not full of little boys–only full of
red stuff.”

“Was you born a reddleman?”

“No, I took to it. I should be as white as you if I were to give up the
trade–that is, I should be white in time–perhaps six months; not at
first, because ’tis grow’d into my skin and won’t wash out. Now, you’ll
never be afraid of a reddleman again, will ye?”

“No, never. Willy Orchard said he seed a red ghost here t’other
day–perhaps that was you?”

“I was here t’other day.”

“Were you making that dusty light I saw by now?”

“Oh yes, I was beating out some bags. And have you had a good bonfire up
there? I saw the light. Why did Miss Vye want a bonfire so bad that she
should give you sixpence to keep it up?”

“I don’t know. I was tired, but she made me bide and keep up the fire
just the same, while she kept going up across Rainbarrow way.”

“And how long did that last?”

“Until a hopfrog jumped into the pond.”

The reddleman suddenly ceased to talk idly. “A hopfrog?” he inquired.
“Hopfrogs don’t jump into ponds this time of year.”

“They do, for I heard one.”

“Certain-sure?”

“Yes. She told me afore that I should hear’n; and so I did. They say
she’s clever and deep, and perhaps she charmed ‘en to come.”

“And what then?”

“Then I came down here, and I was afeard, and I went back; but I didn’t
like to speak to her, because of the gentleman, and I came on here
again.”

“A gentleman–ah! What did she say to him, my man?”

“Told him she supposed he had not married the other woman because he
liked his old sweetheart best; and things like that.”

“What did the gentleman say to her, my sonny?”

“He only said he did like her best, and how he was coming to see her
again under Rainbarrow o’ nights.”

“Ha!” cried the reddleman, slapping his hand against the side of his van
so that the whole fabric shook under the blow. “That’s the secret o’t!”

The little boy jumped clean from the stool.

“My man, don’t you be afraid,” said the dealer in red, suddenly becoming
gentle. “I forgot you were here. That’s only a curious way reddlemen
have of going mad for a moment; but they don’t hurt anybody. And what
did the lady say then?”

“I can’t mind. Please, Master Reddleman, may I go home-along now?”

“Ay, to be sure you may. I’ll go a bit of ways with you.”

He conducted the boy out of the gravel pit and into the path leading
to his mother’s cottage. When the little figure had vanished in the
darkness the reddleman returned, resumed his seat by the fire, and
proceeded to darn again.

9–Love Leads a Shrewd Man into Strategy

Reddlemen of the old school are now but seldom seen. Since the
introduction of railways Wessex farmers have managed to do without these
Mephistophelian visitants, and the bright pigment so largely used by
shepherds in preparing sheep for the fair is obtained by other routes.
Even those who yet survive are losing the poetry of existence which
characterized them when the pursuit of the trade meant periodical
journeys to the pit whence the material was dug, a regular camping out
from month to month, except in the depth of winter, a peregrination
among farms which could be counted by the hundred, and in spite of this
Arab existence the preservation of that respectability which is insured
by the never-failing production of a well-lined purse.

Reddle spreads its lively hues over everything it lights on, and stamps
unmistakably, as with the mark of Cain, any person who has handled it
half an hour.

A child’s first sight of a reddleman was an epoch in his life. That
blood-coloured figure was a sublimation of all the horrid dreams
which had afflicted the juvenile spirit since imagination began. “The
reddleman is coming for you!” had been the formulated threat of Wessex
mothers for many generations. He was successfully supplanted for a
while, at the beginning of the present century, by Buonaparte; but as
process of time rendered the latter personage stale and ineffective the
older phrase resumed its early prominence. And now the reddleman has
in his turn followed Buonaparte to the land of worn-out bogeys, and his
place is filled by modern inventions.

The reddleman lived like a gipsy; but gipsies he scorned. He was about
as thriving as travelling basket and mat makers; but he had nothing
to do with them. He was more decently born and brought up than the
cattledrovers who passed and repassed him in his wanderings; but they
merely nodded to him. His stock was more valuable than that of pedlars;
but they did not think so, and passed his cart with eyes straight ahead.
He was such an unnatural colour to look at that the men of roundabouts
and waxwork shows seemed gentlemen beside him; but he considered them
low company, and remained aloof. Among all these squatters and folks
of the road the reddleman continually found himself; yet he was not of
them. His occupation tended to isolate him, and isolated he was mostly
seen to be.

It was sometimes suggested that reddlemen were criminals for whose
misdeeds other men wrongfully suffered–that in escaping the law they
had not escaped their own consciences, and had taken to the trade as a
lifelong penance. Else why should they have chosen it? In the present
case such a question would have been particularly apposite. The
reddleman who had entered Egdon that afternoon was an instance of the
pleasing being wasted to form the ground-work of the singular, when an
ugly foundation would have done just as well for that purpose. The one
point that was forbidding about this reddleman was his colour. Freed
from that he would have been as agreeable a specimen of rustic manhood
as one would often see. A keen observer might have been inclined to
think–which was, indeed, partly the truth–that he had relinquished
his proper station in life for want of interest in it. Moreover, after
looking at him one would have hazarded the guess that good nature, and
an acuteness as extreme as it could be without verging on craft, formed
the framework of his character.

While he darned the stocking his face became rigid with thought. Softer
expressions followed this, and then again recurred the tender sadness
which had sat upon him during his drive along the highway that
afternoon. Presently his needle stopped. He laid down the stocking,
arose from his seat, and took a leathern pouch from a hook in the corner
of the van. This contained among other articles a brown-paper packet,
which, to judge from the hinge-like character of its worn folds, seemed
to have been carefully opened and closed a good many times. He sat down
on a three-legged milking stool that formed the only seat in the van,
and, examining his packet by the light of a candle, took thence an old
letter and spread it open. The writing had originally been traced on
white paper, but the letter had now assumed a pale red tinge from the
accident of its situation; and the black strokes of writing thereon
looked like the twigs of a winter hedge against a vermilion sunset. The
letter bore a date some two years previous to that time, and was signed
“Thomasin Yeobright.” It ran as follows:–

DEAR DIGGORY VENN,–The question you put when you overtook me coming
home from Pond-close gave me such a surprise that I am afraid I did not
make you exactly understand what I meant. Of course, if my aunt had not
met me I could have explained all then at once, but as it was there was
no chance. I have been quite uneasy since, as you know I do not wish
to pain you, yet I fear I shall be doing so now in contradicting what
I seemed to say then. I cannot, Diggory, marry you, or think of letting
you call me your sweetheart. I could not, indeed, Diggory. I hope you
will not much mind my saying this, and feel in a great pain. It makes me
very sad when I think it may, for I like you very much, and I always put
you next to my cousin Clym in my mind. There are so many reasons why we
cannot be married that I can hardly name them all in a letter. I did not
in the least expect that you were going to speak on such a thing when
you followed me, because I had never thought of you in the sense of a
lover at all. You must not becall me for laughing when you spoke; you
mistook when you thought I laughed at you as a foolish man. I laughed
because the idea was so odd, and not at you at all. The great reason
with my own personal self for not letting you court me is, that I do not
feel the things a woman ought to feel who consents to walk with you
with the meaning of being your wife. It is not as you think, that I have
another in my mind, for I do not encourage anybody, and never have in
my life. Another reason is my aunt. She would not, I know, agree to it,
even if I wished to have you. She likes you very well, but she will
want me to look a little higher than a small dairy-farmer, and marry
a professional man. I hope you will not set your heart against me for
writing plainly, but I felt you might try to see me again, and it is
better that we should not meet. I shall always think of you as a good
man, and be anxious for your well-doing. I send this by Jane Orchard’s
little maid,–And remain Diggory, your faithful friend,

THOMASIN YEOBRIGHT.

To MR. VENN, Dairy-farmer.

Since the arrival of that letter, on a certain autumn morning long ago,
the reddleman and Thomasin had not met till today. During the interval
he had shifted his position even further from hers than it had
originally been, by adopting the reddle trade; though he was really in
very good circumstances still. Indeed, seeing that his expenditure was
only one-fourth of his income, he might have been called a prosperous
man.

Rejected suitors take to roaming as naturally as unhived bees; and the
business to which he had cynically devoted himself was in many ways
congenial to Venn. But his wanderings, by mere stress of old emotions,
had frequently taken an Egdon direction, though he never intruded upon
her who attracted him thither. To be in Thomasin’s heath, and near her,
yet unseen, was the one ewe-lamb of pleasure left to him.

Then came the incident of that day, and the reddleman, still loving
her well, was excited by this accidental service to her at a critical
juncture to vow an active devotion to her cause, instead of, as
hitherto, sighing and holding aloof. After what had happened it was
impossible that he should not doubt the honesty of Wildeve’s intentions.
But her hope was apparently centred upon him; and dismissing his regrets
Venn determined to aid her to be happy in her own chosen way. That this
way was, of all others, the most distressing to himself, was awkward
enough; but the reddleman’s love was generous.

His first active step in watching over Thomasin’s interests was taken
about seven o’clock the next evening and was dictated by the news which
he had learnt from the sad boy. That Eustacia was somehow the cause
of Wildeve’s carelessness in relation to the marriage had at once been
Venn’s conclusion on hearing of the secret meeting between them. It did
not occur to his mind that Eustacia’s love signal to Wildeve was the
tender effect upon the deserted beauty of the intelligence which her
grandfather had brought home. His instinct was to regard her as a
conspirator against rather than as an antecedent obstacle to Thomasin’s
happiness.

During the day he had been exceedingly anxious to learn the condition of
Thomasin, but he did not venture to intrude upon a threshold to which
he was a stranger, particularly at such an unpleasant moment as this. He
had occupied his time in moving with his ponies and load to a new point
in the heath, eastward to his previous station; and here he selected a
nook with a careful eye to shelter from wind and rain, which seemed to
mean that his stay there was to be a comparatively extended one. After
this he returned on foot some part of the way that he had come; and,
it being now dark, he diverged to the left till he stood behind a holly
bush on the edge of a pit not twenty yards from Rainbarrow.

He watched for a meeting there, but he watched in vain. Nobody except
himself came near the spot that night.

But the loss of his labour produced little effect upon the reddleman.
He had stood in the shoes of Tantalus, and seemed to look upon a certain
mass of disappointment as the natural preface to all realizations,
without which preface they would give cause for alarm.

The same hour the next evening found him again at the same place; but
Eustacia and Wildeve, the expected trysters, did not appear.

He pursued precisely the same course yet four nights longer, and without
success. But on the next, being the day-week of their previous meeting,
he saw a female shape floating along the ridge and the outline of
a young man ascending from the valley. They met in the little ditch
encircling the tumulus–the original excavation from which it had been
thrown up by the ancient British people.

The reddleman, stung with suspicion of wrong to Thomasin, was aroused
to strategy in a moment. He instantly left the bush and crept forward on
his hands and knees. When he had got as close as he might safely venture
without discovery he found that, owing to a cross-wind, the conversation
of the trysting pair could not be overheard.

Near him, as in divers places about the heath, were areas strewn with
large turves, which lay edgeways and upside down awaiting removal by
Timothy Fairway, previous to the winter weather. He took two of these
as he lay, and dragged them over him till one covered his head and
shoulders, the other his back and legs. The reddleman would now have
been quite invisible, even by daylight; the turves, standing upon him
with the heather upwards, looked precisely as if they were growing. He
crept along again, and the turves upon his back crept with him. Had he
approached without any covering the chances are that he would not
have been perceived in the dusk; approaching thus, it was as though he
burrowed underground. In this manner he came quite close to where the
two were standing.

“Wish to consult me on the matter?” reached his ears in the rich,
impetuous accents of Eustacia Vye. “Consult me? It is an indignity to
me to talk so–I won’t bear it any longer!” She began weeping. “I have
loved you, and have shown you that I loved you, much to my regret; and
yet you can come and say in that frigid way that you wish to consult
with me whether it would not be better to marry Thomasin. Better–of
course it would be. Marry her–she is nearer to your own position in
life than I am!”

“Yes, yes; that’s very well,” said Wildeve peremptorily. “But we must
look at things as they are. Whatever blame may attach to me for having
brought it about, Thomasin’s position is at present much worse than
yours. I simply tell you that I am in a strait.”

“But you shall not tell me! You must see that it is only harassing me.
Damon, you have not acted well; you have sunk in my opinion. You have
not valued my courtesy–the courtesy of a lady in loving you–who used
to think of far more ambitious things. But it was Thomasin’s fault.

“She won you away from me, and she deserves to suffer for it. Where is
she staying now? Not that I care, nor where I am myself. Ah, if I were
dead and gone how glad she would be! Where is she, I ask?”

“Thomasin is now staying at her aunt’s shut up in a bedroom, and keeping
out of everybody’s sight,” he said indifferently.

“I don’t think you care much about her even now,” said Eustacia with
sudden joyousness, “for if you did you wouldn’t talk so coolly about
her. Do you talk so coolly to her about me? Ah, I expect you do! Why did
you originally go away from me? I don’t think I can ever forgive you,
except on one condition, that whenever you desert me, you come back
again, sorry that you served me so.”

“I never wish to desert you.”

“I do not thank you for that. I should hate it to be all smooth. Indeed,
I think I like you to desert me a little once now and then. Love is the
dismallest thing where the lover is quite honest. O, it is a shame to
say so; but it is true!” She indulged in a little laugh. “My low spirits
begin at the very idea. Don’t you offer me tame love, or away you go!”

“I wish Tamsie were not such a confoundedly good little woman,” said
Wildeve, “so that I could be faithful to you without injuring a worthy
person. It is I who am the sinner after all; I am not worth the little
finger of either of you.”

“But you must not sacrifice yourself to her from any sense of justice,”
replied Eustacia quickly. “If you do not love her it is the most
merciful thing in the long run to leave her as she is. That’s always
the best way. There, now I have been unwomanly, I suppose. When you have
left me I am always angry with myself for things that I have said to
you.”

Wildeve walked a pace or two among the heather without replying. The
pause was filled up by the intonation of a pollard thorn a little way to
windward, the breezes filtering through its unyielding twigs as through
a strainer. It was as if the night sang dirges with clenched teeth.

She continued, half sorrowfully, “Since meeting you last, it has
occurred to me once or twice that perhaps it was not for love of me you
did not marry her. Tell me, Damon–I’ll try to bear it. Had I nothing
whatever to do with the matter?”

“Do you press me to tell?”

“Yes, I must know. I see I have been too ready to believe in my own
power.”

“Well, the immediate reason was that the license would not do for the
place, and before I could get another she ran away. Up to that point
you had nothing to do with it. Since then her aunt has spoken to me in a
tone which I don’t at all like.”

“Yes, yes! I am nothing in it–I am nothing in it. You only trifle with
me. Heaven, what can I, Eustacia Vye, be made of to think so much of
you!”

“Nonsense; do not be so passionate….Eustacia, how we roved among these
bushes last year, when the hot days had got cool, and the shades of the
hills kept us almost invisible in the hollows!”

She remained in moody silence till she said, “Yes; and how I used to
laugh at you for daring to look up to me! But you have well made me
suffer for that since.”

“Yes, you served me cruelly enough until I thought I had found someone
fairer than you. A blessed find for me, Eustacia.”

“Do you still think you found somebody fairer?”

“Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. The scales are balanced so nicely
that a feather would turn them.”

“But don’t you really care whether I meet you or whether I don’t?” she
said slowly.

“I care a little, but not enough to break my rest,” replied the young
man languidly. “No, all that’s past. I find there are two flowers where
I thought there was only one. Perhaps there are three, or four, or any
number as good as the first….Mine is a curious fate. Who would have
thought that all this could happen to me?”

She interrupted with a suppressed fire of which either love or anger
seemed an equally possible issue, “Do you love me now?”

“Who can say?”

“Tell me; I will know it!”

“I do, and I do not,” said he mischievously. “That is, I have my times
and my seasons. One moment you are too tall, another moment you are too
do-nothing, another too melancholy, another too dark, another I don’t
know what, except–that you are not the whole world to me that you used
to be, my dear. But you are a pleasant lady to know and nice to meet,
and I dare say as sweet as ever–almost.”

Eustacia was silent, and she turned from him, till she said, in a voice
of suspended mightiness, “I am for a walk, and this is my way.”

“Well, I can do worse than follow you.”

“You know you can’t do otherwise, for all your moods and changes!” she
answered defiantly. “Say what you will; try as you may; keep away from
me all that you can–you will never forget me. You will love me all your
life long. You would jump to marry me!”

“So I would!” said Wildeve. “Such strange thoughts as I’ve had from time
to time, Eustacia; and they come to me this moment. You hate the heath
as much as ever; that I know.”

“I do,” she murmured deeply. “‘Tis my cross, my shame, and will be my
death!”

“I abhor it too,” said he. “How mournfully the wind blows round us now!”

She did not answer. Its tone was indeed solemn and pervasive. Compound
utterances addressed themselves to their senses, and it was possible to
view by ear the features of the neighbourhood. Acoustic pictures were
returned from the darkened scenery; they could hear where the tracts of
heather began and ended; where the furze was growing stalky and tall;
where it had been recently cut; in what direction the fir-clump lay,
and how near was the pit in which the hollies grew; for these differing
features had their voices no less than their shapes and colours.

“God, how lonely it is!” resumed Wildeve. “What are picturesque ravines
and mists to us who see nothing else? Why should we stay here? Will you
go with me to America? I have kindred in Wisconsin.”

“That wants consideration.”

“It seems impossible to do well here, unless one were a wild bird or a
landscape-painter. Well?”

“Give me time,” she softly said, taking his hand. “America is so far
away. Are you going to walk with me a little way?”

As Eustacia uttered the latter words she retired from the base of the
barrow, and Wildeve followed her, so that the reddleman could hear no
more.

He lifted the turves and arose. Their black figures sank and disappeared
from against the sky. They were as two horns which the sluggish heath
had put forth from its crown, like a mollusc, and had now again drawn
in.

The reddleman’s walk across the vale, and over into the next where his
cart lay, was not sprightly for a slim young fellow of twenty-four. His
spirit was perturbed to aching. The breezes that blew around his mouth
in that walk carried off upon them the accents of a commination.

He entered the van, where there was a fire in a stove. Without lighting
his candle he sat down at once on the three-legged stool, and pondered
on what he had seen and heard touching that still-loved one of his.
He uttered a sound which was neither sigh nor sob, but was even more
indicative than either of a troubled mind.

“My Tamsie,” he whispered heavily. “What can be done? Yes, I will see
that Eustacia Vye.”

10–A Desperate Attempt at Persuasion

The next morning, at the time when the height of the sun appeared very
insignificant from any part of the heath as compared with the altitude
of Rainbarrow, and when all the little hills in the lower levels were
like an archipelago in a fog-formed Aegean, the reddleman came from
the brambled nook which he had adopted as his quarters and ascended the
slopes of Mistover Knap.

Though these shaggy hills were apparently so solitary, several keen
round eyes were always ready on such a wintry morning as this to
converge upon a passer-by. Feathered species sojourned here in hiding
which would have created wonder if found elsewhere. A bustard haunted
the spot, and not many years before this five and twenty might have been
seen in Egdon at one time. Marsh-harriers looked up from the valley by
Wildeve’s. A cream-coloured courser had used to visit this hill, a bird
so rare that not more than a dozen have ever been seen in England; but
a barbarian rested neither night nor day till he had shot the African
truant, and after that event cream-coloured coursers thought fit to
enter Egdon no more.

A traveller who should walk and observe any of these visitants as Venn
observed them now could feel himself to be in direct communication with
regions unknown to man. Here in front of him was a wild mallard–just
arrived from the home of the north wind. The creature brought within
him an amplitude of Northern knowledge. Glacial catastrophes, snowstorm
episodes, glittering auroral effects, Polaris in the zenith, Franklin
underfoot–the category of his commonplaces was wonderful. But the bird,
like many other philosophers, seemed as he looked at the reddleman to
think that a present moment of comfortable reality was worth a decade of
memories.

Venn passed on through these towards the house of the isolated beauty
who lived up among them and despised them. The day was Sunday; but as
going to church, except to be married or buried, was exceptional at
Egdon, this made little difference. He had determined upon the bold
stroke of asking for an interview with Miss Vye–to attack her position
as Thomasin’s rival either by art or by storm, showing therein, somewhat
too conspicuously, the want of gallantry characteristic of a certain
astute sort of men, from clowns to kings. The great Frederick making war
on the beautiful Archduchess, Napoleon refusing terms to the beautiful
Queen of Prussia, were not more dead to difference of sex than the
reddleman was, in his peculiar way, in planning the displacement of
Eustacia.

To call at the captain’s cottage was always more or less an undertaking
for the inferior inhabitants. Though occasionally chatty, his moods
were erratic, and nobody could be certain how he would behave at
any particular moment. Eustacia was reserved, and lived very much
to herself. Except the daughter of one of the cotters, who was their
servant, and a lad who worked in the garden and stable, scarcely anyone
but themselves ever entered the house. They were the only genteel people
of the district except the Yeobrights, and though far from rich, they
did not feel that necessity for preserving a friendly face towards every
man, bird, and beast which influenced their poorer neighbours.

When the reddleman entered the garden the old man was looking through
his glass at the stain of blue sea in the distant landscape, the little
anchors on his buttons twinkling in the sun. He recognized Venn as
his companion on the highway, but made no remark on that circumstance,
merely saying, “Ah, reddleman–you here? Have a glass of grog?”

Venn declined, on the plea of it being too early, and stated that
his business was with Miss Vye. The captain surveyed him from cap to
waistcoat and from waistcoat to leggings for a few moments, and finally
asked him to go indoors.

Miss Vye was not to be seen by anybody just then; and the reddleman
waited in the window-bench of the kitchen, his hands hanging across his
divergent knees, and his cap hanging from his hands.

“I suppose the young lady is not up yet?” he presently said to the
servant.

“Not quite yet. Folks never call upon ladies at this time of day.”

“Then I’ll step outside,” said Venn. “If she is willing to see me, will
she please send out word, and I’ll come in.”

The reddleman left the house and loitered on the hill adjoining. A
considerable time elapsed, and no request for his presence was brought.
He was beginning to think that his scheme had failed, when he beheld
the form of Eustacia herself coming leisurely towards him. A sense of
novelty in giving audience to that singular figure had been sufficient
to draw her forth.

She seemed to feel, after a bare look at Diggory Venn, that the man had
come on a strange errand, and that he was not so mean as she had thought
him; for her close approach did not cause him to writhe uneasily,
or shift his feet, or show any of those little signs which escape an
ingenuous rustic at the advent of the uncommon in womankind. On his
inquiring if he might have a conversation with her she replied, “Yes,
walk beside me,” and continued to move on.

Before they had gone far it occurred to the perspicacious reddleman that
he would have acted more wisely by appearing less unimpressionable, and
he resolved to correct the error as soon as he could find opportunity.

“I have made so bold, miss, as to step across and tell you some strange
news which has come to my ears about that man.”

“Ah! what man?”

He jerked his elbow to the southeast–the direction of the Quiet Woman.

Eustacia turned quickly to him. “Do you mean Mr. Wildeve?”

“Yes, there is trouble in a household on account of him, and I have come
to let you know of it, because I believe you might have power to drive
it away.”

“I? What is the trouble?”

“It is quite a secret. It is that he may refuse to marry Thomasin
Yeobright after all.”

Eustacia, though set inwardly pulsing by his words, was equal to her
part in such a drama as this. She replied coldly, “I do not wish to
listen to this, and you must not expect me to interfere.”

“But, miss, you will hear one word?”

“I cannot. I am not interested in the marriage, and even if I were I
could not compel Mr. Wildeve to do my bidding.”

“As the only lady on the heath I think you might,” said Venn with subtle
indirectness. “This is how the case stands. Mr. Wildeve would marry
Thomasin at once, and make all matters smooth, if so be there were not
another woman in the case. This other woman is some person he has picked
up with, and meets on the heath occasionally, I believe. He will never
marry her, and yet through her he may never marry the woman who loves
him dearly. Now, if you, miss, who have so much sway over us menfolk,
were to insist that he should treat your young neighbour Tamsin with
honourable kindness and give up the other woman, he would perhaps do it,
and save her a good deal of misery.”

“Ah, my life!” said Eustacia, with a laugh which unclosed her lips so
that the sun shone into her mouth as into a tulip, and lent it a similar
scarlet fire. “You think too much of my influence over menfolk indeed,
reddleman. If I had such a power as you imagine I would go straight and
use it for the good of anybody who has been kind to me–which Thomasin
Yeobright has not particularly, to my knowledge.”

“Can it be that you really don’t know of it–how much she had always
thought of you?”

“I have never heard a word of it. Although we live only two miles apart
I have never been inside her aunt’s house in my life.”

The superciliousness that lurked in her manner told Venn that thus
far he had utterly failed. He inwardly sighed and felt it necessary to
unmask his second argument.

“Well, leaving that out of the question, ’tis in your power, I assure
you, Miss Vye, to do a great deal of good to another woman.”

She shook her head.

“Your comeliness is law with Mr. Wildeve. It is law with all men who see
‘ee. They say, ‘This well-favoured lady coming–what’s her name? How
handsome!’ Handsomer than Thomasin Yeobright,” the reddleman persisted,
saying to himself, “God forgive a rascal for lying!” And she was
handsomer, but the reddleman was far from thinking so. There was a
certain obscurity in Eustacia’s beauty, and Venn’s eye was not trained.
In her winter dress, as now, she was like the tiger-beetle, which, when
observed in dull situations, seems to be of the quietest neutral colour,
but under a full illumination blazes with dazzling splendour.

Eustacia could not help replying, though conscious that she endangered
her dignity thereby. “Many women are lovelier than Thomasin,” she said,
“so not much attaches to that.”

The reddleman suffered the wound and went on: “He is a man who notices
the looks of women, and you could twist him to your will like withywind,
if you only had the mind.”

“Surely what she cannot do who has been so much with him I cannot do
living up here away from him.”

The reddleman wheeled and looked her in the face. “Miss Vye!” he said.

“Why do you say that–as if you doubted me?” She spoke faintly, and her
breathing was quick. “The idea of your speaking in that tone to me!”
she added, with a forced smile of hauteur. “What could have been in your
mind to lead you to speak like that?”

“Miss Vye, why should you make believe that you don’t know this man?–I
know why, certainly. He is beneath you, and you are ashamed.”

“You are mistaken. What do you mean?”

The reddleman had decided to play the card of truth. “I was at the
meeting by Rainbarrow last night and heard every word,” he said. “The
woman that stands between Wildeve and Thomasin is yourself.”

It was a disconcerting lift of the curtain, and the mortification of
Candaules’ wife glowed in her. The moment had arrived when her lip would
tremble in spite of herself, and when the gasp could no longer be kept
down.

“I am unwell,” she said hurriedly. “No–it is not that–I am not in a
humour to hear you further. Leave me, please.”

“I must speak, Miss Vye, in spite of paining you. What I would put
before you is this. However it may come about–whether she is to blame,
or you–her case is without doubt worse than yours. Your giving up Mr.
Wildeve will be a real advantage to you, for how could you marry him?
Now she cannot get off so easily–everybody will blame her if she loses
him. Then I ask you–not because her right is best, but because her
situation is worst–to give him up to her.”

“No–I won’t, I won’t!” she said impetuously, quite forgetful of her
previous manner towards the reddleman as an underling. “Nobody has ever
been served so! It was going on well–I will not be beaten down–by an
inferior woman like her. It is very well for you to come and plead for
her, but is she not herself the cause of all her own trouble? Am I not
to show favour to any person I may choose without asking permission of a
parcel of cottagers? She has come between me and my inclination, and now
that she finds herself rightly punished she gets you to plead for her!”

“Indeed,” said Venn earnestly, “she knows nothing whatever about it. It
is only I who ask you to give him up. It will be better for her and you
both. People will say bad things if they find out that a lady secretly
meets a man who has ill-used another woman.”

“I have NOT injured her–he was mine before he was hers! He came
back–because–because he liked me best!” she said wildly. “But I lose
all self-respect in talking to you. What am I giving way to!”

“I can keep secrets,” said Venn gently. “You need not fear. I am the
only man who knows of your meetings with him. There is but one thing
more to speak of, and then I will be gone. I heard you say to him that
you hated living here–that Egdon Heath was a jail to you.”

“I did say so. There is a sort of beauty in the scenery, I know; but it
is a jail to me. The man you mention does not save me from that feeling,
though he lives here. I should have cared nothing for him had there been
a better person near.”

The reddleman looked hopeful; after these words from her his third
attempt seemed promising. “As we have now opened our minds a bit, miss,”
he said, “I’ll tell you what I have got to propose. Since I have taken
to the reddle trade I travel a good deal, as you know.”

She inclined her head, and swept round so that her eyes rested in the
misty vale beneath them.

“And in my travels I go near Budmouth. Now Budmouth is a wonderful
place–wonderful–a great salt sheening sea bending into the land like
a bow–thousands of gentlepeople walking up and down–bands of music
playing–officers by sea and officers by land walking among the
rest–out of every ten folks you meet nine of ’em in love.”

“I know it,” she said disdainfully. “I know Budmouth better than you.
I was born there. My father came to be a military musician there from
abroad. Ah, my soul, Budmouth! I wish I was there now.”

The reddleman was surprised to see how a slow fire could blaze on
occasion. “If you were, miss,” he replied, “in a week’s time you would
think no more of Wildeve than of one of those he’th-croppers that we see
yond. Now, I could get you there.”

“How?” said Eustacia, with intense curiosity in her heavy eyes.

“My uncle has been for five and twenty years the trusty man of a rich
widow-lady who has a beautiful house facing the sea. This lady has
become old and lame, and she wants a young company-keeper to read and
sing to her, but can’t get one to her mind to save her life, though
she’ve advertised in the papers, and tried half a dozen. She would jump
to get you, and Uncle would make it all easy.”

“I should have to work, perhaps?”

“No, not real work–you’d have a little to do, such as reading and that.
You would not be wanted till New Year’s Day.”

“I knew it meant work,” she said, drooping to languor again.

“I confess there would be a trifle to do in the way of amusing her;
but though idle people might call it work, working people would call
it play. Think of the company and the life you’d lead, miss; the gaiety
you’d see, and the gentleman you’d marry. My uncle is to inquire for a
trustworthy young lady from the country, as she don’t like town girls.”

“It is to wear myself out to please her! and I won’t go. O, if I could
live in a gay town as a lady should, and go my own ways, and do my own
doings, I’d give the wrinkled half of my life! Yes, reddleman, that
would I.”

“Help me to get Thomasin happy, miss, and the chance shall be yours,”
urged her companion.

“Chance–’tis no chance,” she said proudly. “What can a poor man like
you offer me, indeed?–I am going indoors. I have nothing more to say.
Don’t your horses want feeding, or your reddlebags want mending, or
don’t you want to find buyers for your goods, that you stay idling here
like this?”

Venn spoke not another word. With his hands behind him he turned away,
that she might not see the hopeless disappointment in his face. The
mental clearness and power he had found in this lonely girl had indeed
filled his manner with misgiving even from the first few minutes of
close quarters with her. Her youth and situation had led him to expect
a simplicity quite at the beck of his method. But a system of inducement
which might have carried weaker country lasses along with it had merely
repelled Eustacia. As a rule, the word Budmouth meant fascination on
Egdon. That Royal port and watering place, if truly mirrored in
the minds of the heathfolk, must have combined, in a charming and
indescribable manner a Carthaginian bustle of building with Tarentine
luxuriousness and Baian health and beauty. Eustacia felt little less
extravagantly about the place; but she would not sink her independence
to get there.

When Diggory Venn had gone quite away, Eustacia walked to the bank and
looked down the wild and picturesque vale towards the sun, which was
also in the direction of Wildeve’s. The mist had now so far collapsed
that the tips of the trees and bushes around his house could just
be discerned, as if boring upwards through a vast white cobweb which
cloaked them from the day. There was no doubt that her mind was inclined
thitherward; indefinitely, fancifully–twining and untwining about
him as the single object within her horizon on which dreams might
crystallize. The man who had begun by being merely her amusement, and
would never have been more than her hobby but for his skill in deserting
her at the right moments, was now again her desire. Cessation in his
love-making had revivified her love. Such feeling as Eustacia had idly
given to Wildeve was dammed into a flood by Thomasin. She had used to
tease Wildeve, but that was before another had favoured him. Often a
drop of irony into an indifferent situation renders the whole piquant.

“I will never give him up–never!” she said impetuously.

The reddleman’s hint that rumour might show her to disadvantage had
no permanent terror for Eustacia. She was as unconcerned at that
contingency as a goddess at a lack of linen. This did not originate in
inherent shamelessness, but in her living too far from the world to feel
the impact of public opinion. Zenobia in the desert could hardly have
cared what was said about her at Rome. As far as social ethics were
concerned Eustacia approached the savage state, though in emotion she
was all the while an epicure. She had advanced to the secret recesses of
sensuousness, yet had hardly crossed the threshold of conventionality.

11–The Dishonesty of an Honest Woman

The reddleman had left Eustacia’s presence with desponding views on
Thomasin’s future happiness; but he was awakened to the fact that one
other channel remained untried by seeing, as he followed the way to his
van, the form of Mrs. Yeobright slowly walking towards the Quiet Woman.
He went across to her; and could almost perceive in her anxious face
that this journey of hers to Wildeve was undertaken with the same object
as his own to Eustacia.

She did not conceal the fact. “Then,” said the reddleman, “you may as
well leave it alone, Mrs. Yeobright.”

“I half think so myself,” she said. “But nothing else remains to be done
besides pressing the question upon him.”

“I should like to say a word first,” said Venn firmly. “Mr. Wildeve is
not the only man who has asked Thomasin to marry him; and why should not
another have a chance? Mrs. Yeobright, I should be glad to marry your
niece and would have done it any time these last two years. There, now
it is out, and I have never told anybody before but herself.”

Mrs. Yeobright was not demonstrative, but her eyes involuntarily glanced
towards his singular though shapely figure.

“Looks are not everything,” said the reddleman, noticing the glance.
“There’s many a calling that don’t bring in so much as mine, if it comes
to money; and perhaps I am not so much worse off than Wildeve. There is
nobody so poor as these professional fellows who have failed; and if you
shouldn’t like my redness–well, I am not red by birth, you know; I only
took to this business for a freak; and I might turn my hand to something
else in good time.”

“I am much obliged to you for your interest in my niece; but I fear
there would be objections. More than that, she is devoted to this man.”

“True; or I shouldn’t have done what I have this morning.”

“Otherwise there would be no pain in the case, and you would not see me
going to his house now. What was Thomasin’s answer when you told her of
your feelings?”

“She wrote that you would object to me; and other things.”

“She was in a measure right. You must not take this unkindly–I merely
state it as a truth. You have been good to her, and we do not forget
it. But as she was unwilling on her own account to be your wife, that
settles the point without my wishes being concerned.”

“Yes. But there is a difference between then and now, ma’am. She is
distressed now, and I have thought that if you were to talk to her about
me, and think favourably of me yourself, there might be a chance of
winning her round, and getting her quite independent of this Wildeve’s
backward and forward play, and his not knowing whether he’ll have her or
no.”

Mrs. Yeobright shook her head. “Thomasin thinks, and I think with her,
that she ought to be Wildeve’s wife, if she means to appear before the
world without a slur upon her name. If they marry soon, everybody will
believe that an accident did really prevent the wedding. If not, it may
cast a shade upon her character–at any rate make her ridiculous. In
short, if it is anyhow possible they must marry now.”

“I thought that till half an hour ago. But, after all, why should her
going off with him to Anglebury for a few hours do her any harm? Anybody
who knows how pure she is will feel any such thought to be quite
unjust. I have been trying this morning to help on this marriage with
Wildeve–yes, I, ma’am–in the belief that I ought to do it, because she
was so wrapped up in him. But I much question if I was right, after all.
However, nothing came of it. And now I offer myself.”

Mrs. Yeobright appeared disinclined to enter further into the question.
“I fear I must go on,” she said. “I do not see that anything else can be
done.”

And she went on. But though this conversation did not divert Thomasin’s
aunt from her purposed interview with Wildeve, it made a considerable
difference in her mode of conducting that interview. She thanked God for
the weapon which the reddleman had put into her hands.

Wildeve was at home when she reached the inn. He showed her silently
into the parlour, and closed the door. Mrs. Yeobright began–

“I have thought it my duty to call today. A new proposal has been made
to me, which has rather astonished me. It will affect Thomasin greatly;
and I have decided that it should at least be mentioned to you.”

“Yes? What is it?” he said civilly.

“It is, of course, in reference to her future. You may not be aware that
another man has shown himself anxious to marry Thomasin. Now, though
I have not encouraged him yet, I cannot conscientiously refuse him a
chance any longer. I don’t wish to be short with you; but I must be fair
to him and to her.”

“Who is the man?” said Wildeve with surprise.

“One who has been in love with her longer than she has with you. He
proposed to her two years ago. At that time she refused him.”

“Well?”

“He has seen her lately, and has asked me for permission to pay his
addresses to her. She may not refuse him twice.”

“What is his name?”

Mrs. Yeobright declined to say. “He is a man Thomasin likes,” she added,
“and one whose constancy she respects at least. It seems to me that what
she refused then she would be glad to get now. She is much annoyed at
her awkward position.”

“She never once told me of this old lover.”

“The gentlest women are not such fools as to show EVERY card.”

“Well, if she wants him I suppose she must have him.”

“It is easy enough to say that; but you don’t see the difficulty. He
wants her much more than she wants him; and before I can encourage
anything of the sort I must have a clear understanding from you that
you will not interfere to injure an arrangement which I promote in the
belief that it is for the best. Suppose, when they are engaged, and
everything is smoothly arranged for their marriage, that you should step
between them and renew your suit? You might not win her back, but you
might cause much unhappiness.”

“Of course I should do no such thing,” said Wildeve “But they are not
engaged yet. How do you know that Thomasin would accept him?”

“That’s a question I have carefully put to myself; and upon the whole
the probabilities are in favour of her accepting him in time. I flatter
myself that I have some influence over her. She is pliable, and I can be
strong in my recommendations of him.”

“And in your disparagement of me at the same time.”

“Well, you may depend upon my not praising you,” she said drily. “And
if this seems like manoeuvring, you must remember that her position is
peculiar, and that she has been hardly used. I shall also be helped in
making the match by her own desire to escape from the humiliation of her
present state; and a woman’s pride in these cases will lead her a very
great way. A little managing may be required to bring her round; but
I am equal to that, provided that you agree to the one thing
indispensable; that is, to make a distinct declaration that she is to
think no more of you as a possible husband. That will pique her into
accepting him.”

“I can hardly say that just now, Mrs. Yeobright. It is so sudden.”

“And so my whole plan is interfered with! It is very inconvenient
that you refuse to help my family even to the small extent of saying
distinctly you will have nothing to do with us.”

Wildeve reflected uncomfortably. “I confess I was not prepared for
this,” he said. “Of course I’ll give her up if you wish, if it is
necessary. But I thought I might be her husband.”

“We have heard that before.”

“Now, Mrs. Yeobright, don’t let us disagree. Give me a fair time. I
don’t want to stand in the way of any better chance she may have; only
I wish you had let me know earlier. I will write to you or call in a day
or two. Will that suffice?”

“Yes,” she replied, “provided you promise not to communicate with
Thomasin without my knowledge.”

“I promise that,” he said. And the interview then terminated, Mrs.
Yeobright returning homeward as she had come.

By far the greatest effect of her simple strategy on that day was, as
often happens, in a quarter quite outside her view when arranging it. In
the first place, her visit sent Wildeve the same evening after dark to
Eustacia’s house at Mistover.

At this hour the lonely dwelling was closely blinded and shuttered from
the chill and darkness without. Wildeve’s clandestine plan with her was
to take a little gravel in his hand and hold it to the crevice at the
top of the window shutter, which was on the outside, so that it should
fall with a gentle rustle, resembling that of a mouse, between shutter
and glass. This precaution in attracting her attention was to avoid
arousing the suspicions of her grandfather.

The soft words, “I hear; wait for me,” in Eustacia’s voice from within
told him that she was alone.

He waited in his customary manner by walking round the enclosure and
idling by the pool, for Wildeve was never asked into the house by his
proud though condescending mistress. She showed no sign of coming out in
a hurry. The time wore on, and he began to grow impatient. In the course
of twenty minutes she appeared from round the corner, and advanced as if
merely taking an airing.

“You would not have kept me so long had you known what I come about,” he
said with bitterness. “Still, you are worth waiting for.”

“What has happened?” said Eustacia. “I did not know you were in trouble.
I too am gloomy enough.”

“I am not in trouble,” said he. “It is merely that affairs have come to
a head, and I must take a clear course.”

“What course is that?” she asked with attentive interest.

“And can you forget so soon what I proposed to you the other night? Why,
take you from this place, and carry you away with me abroad.”

“I have not forgotten. But why have you come so unexpectedly to repeat
the question, when you only promised to come next Saturday? I thought I
was to have plenty of time to consider.”

“Yes, but the situation is different now.”

“Explain to me.”

“I don’t want to explain, for I may pain you.”

“But I must know the reason of this hurry.”

“It is simply my ardour, dear Eustacia. Everything is smooth now.”

“Then why are you so ruffled?”

“I am not aware of it. All is as it should be. Mrs. Yeobright–but she
is nothing to us.”

“Ah, I knew she had something to do with it! Come, I don’t like
reserve.”

“No–she has nothing. She only says she wishes me to give up Thomasin
because another man is anxious to marry her. The woman, now she no
longer needs me, actually shows off!” Wildeve’s vexation has escaped him
in spite of himself.

Eustacia was silent a long while. “You are in the awkward position of an
official who is no longer wanted,” she said in a changed tone.

“It seems so. But I have not yet seen Thomasin.”

“And that irritates you. Don’t deny it, Damon. You are actually nettled
by this slight from an unexpected quarter.”

“Well?”

“And you come to get me because you cannot get her. This is certainly a
new position altogether. I am to be a stop-gap.”

“Please remember that I proposed the same thing the other day.”

Eustacia again remained in a sort of stupefied silence. What curious
feeling was this coming over her? Was it really possible that her
interest in Wildeve had been so entirely the result of antagonism that
the glory and the dream departed from the man with the first sound that
he was no longer coveted by her rival? She was, then, secure of him at
last. Thomasin no longer required him. What a humiliating victory!
He loved her best, she thought; and yet–dared she to murmur such
treacherous criticism ever so softly?–what was the man worth whom a
woman inferior to herself did not value? The sentiment which lurks more
or less in all animate nature–that of not desiring the undesired of
others–was lively as a passion in the supersubtle, epicurean heart of
Eustacia. Her social superiority over him, which hitherto had scarcely
ever impressed her, became unpleasantly insistent, and for the first
time she felt that she had stooped in loving him.

“Well, darling, you agree?” said Wildeve.

“If it could be London, or even Budmouth, instead of America,” she
murmured languidly. “Well, I will think. It is too great a thing for me
to decide offhand. I wish I hated the heath less–or loved you more.”

“You can be painfully frank. You loved me a month ago warmly enough to
go anywhere with me.”

“And you loved Thomasin.”

“Yes, perhaps that was where the reason lay,” he returned, with almost a
sneer. “I don’t hate her now.”

“Exactly. The only thing is that you can no longer get her.”

“Come–no taunts, Eustacia, or we shall quarrel. If you don’t agree to
go with me, and agree shortly, I shall go by myself.”

“Or try Thomasin again. Damon, how strange it seems that you could have
married her or me indifferently, and only have come to me because I
am–cheapest! Yes, yes–it is true. There was a time when I should have
exclaimed against a man of that sort, and been quite wild; but it is all
past now.”

“Will you go, dearest? Come secretly with me to Bristol, marry me, and
turn our backs upon this dog-hole of England for ever? Say Yes.”

“I want to get away from here at almost any cost,” she said with
weariness, “but I don’t like to go with you. Give me more time to
decide.”

“I have already,” said Wildeve. “Well, I give you one more week.”

“A little longer, so that I may tell you decisively. I have to consider
so many things. Fancy Thomasin being anxious to get rid of you! I cannot
forget it.”

“Never mind that. Say Monday week. I will be here precisely at this
time.”

“Let it be at Rainbarrow,” said she. “This is too near home; my
grandfather may be walking out.”

“Thank you, dear. On Monday week at this time I will be at the Barrow.
Till then good-bye.”

“Good-bye. No, no, you must not touch me now. Shaking hands is enough
till I have made up my mind.”

Eustacia watched his shadowy form till it had disappeared. She placed
her hand to her forehead and breathed heavily; and then her rich,
romantic lips parted under that homely impulse–a yawn. She was
immediately angry at having betrayed even to herself the possible
evanescence of her passion for him. She could not admit at once that she
might have overestimated Wildeve, for to perceive his mediocrity now was
to admit her own great folly heretofore. And the discovery that she was
the owner of a disposition so purely that of the dog in the manger had
something in it which at first made her ashamed.

The fruit of Mrs. Yeobright’s diplomacy was indeed remarkable,
though not as yet of the kind she had anticipated. It had appreciably
influenced Wildeve, but it was influencing Eustacia far more. Her lover
was no longer to her an exciting man whom many women strove for, and
herself could only retain by striving with them. He was a superfluity.

She went indoors in that peculiar state of misery which is not exactly
grief, and which especially attends the dawnings of reason in the latter
days of an ill-judged, transient love. To be conscious that the end of
the dream is approaching, and yet has not absolutely come, is one of
the most wearisome as well as the most curious stages along the course
between the beginning of a passion and its end.

Her grandfather had returned, and was busily engaged in pouring some
gallons of newly arrived rum into the square bottles of his square
cellaret. Whenever these home supplies were exhausted he would go to the
Quiet Woman, and, standing with his back to the fire, grog in hand, tell
remarkable stories of how he had lived seven years under the waterline
of his ship, and other naval wonders, to the natives, who hoped too
earnestly for a treat of ale from the teller to exhibit any doubts of
his truth.

He had been there this evening. “I suppose you have heard the Egdon
news, Eustacia?” he said, without looking up from the bottles. “The
men have been talking about it at the Woman as if it were of national
importance.”

“I have heard none,” she said.

“Young Clym Yeobright, as they call him, is coming home next week to
spend Christmas with his mother. He is a fine fellow by this time, it
seems. I suppose you remember him?”

“I never saw him in my life.”

“Ah, true; he left before you came here. I well remember him as a
promising boy.”

“Where has he been living all these years?”

“In that rookery of pomp and vanity, Paris, I believe.”

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