The rambler who, for old association or other reasons, should trace the forsaken coach-road running almost in a meridional line from Bristol to the south shore of England, would find himself during the latter half of his journey in the vicinity of some extensive woodlands, interspersed with apple-orchards. Here the trees, timber or fruit-bearing, as the case may be, make the wayside hedges ragged by their drip and shade, stretching over the road with easeful horizontality, as if they found the unsubstantial air an adequate support for their limbs. At one place, where a hill is crossed, the largest of the woods shows itself bisected by the high-way, as the head of thick hair is bisected by the white line of its parting. The spot is lonely.
The physiognomy of a deserted highway expresses solitude to a degree that is not reached by mere dales or downs, and bespeaks a tomb-like stillness more emphatic than that of glades and pools. The contrast of what is with what might be probably accounts for this. To step, for instance, at the place under notice, from the hedge of the plantation into the adjoining pale thoroughfare, and pause amid its emptiness for a moment, was to exchange by the act of a single stride the simple absence of human companionship for an incubus of the forlorn.
At this spot, on the lowering evening of a by-gone winter's day, there stood a man who had entered upon the scene much in the aforesaid manner. Alighting into the road from a stile hard by, he, though by no means a "chosen vessel" for impressions, was temporarily influenced by some such feeling of being suddenly more alone than before he had emerged upon the highway.
It could be seen by a glance at his rather finical style of dress that he did not belong to the country proper; and from his air, after a while, that though there might be a sombre beauty in the scenery, music in the breeze, and a wan procession of coaching ghosts in the sentiment of this old turnpike-road, he was mainly puzzled about the way. The dead men's work that had been expended in climbing that hill, the blistered soles that had trodden it, and the tears that had wetted it, were not his concern; for fate had given him no time for any but practical things.
He looked north and south, and mechanically prodded the ground with his walking-stick. A closer glance at his face corroborated the testimony of his clothes. It was self-complacent, yet there was small apparent ground for such complacence. Nothing irradiated it; to the eye of the magician in character, if not to the ordinary observer, the expression enthroned there was absolute submission to and belief in a little assortment of forms and habitudes.
At first not a soul appeared who could enlighten him as he desired, or seemed likely to appear that night. But presently a slight noise of laboring wheels and the steady dig of a horse's shoe-tips became audible; and there loomed in the notch of the hill and plantation that the road formed here at the summit a carrier's van drawn by a single horse. When it got nearer, he said, with some relief to himself, "'Tis Mrs. Dollery's—this will help me."
The vehicle was half full of passengers, mostly women. He held up his stick at its approach, and the woman who was driving drew rein.
"I've been trying to find a short way to Little Hintock this last half-hour, Mrs. Dollery," he said. "But though I've been to Great Hintock and Hintock House half a dozen times I am at fault about the small village. You can help me, I dare say?"
She assured him that she could—that as she went to Great Hintock her van passed near it—that it was only up the lane that branched out of the lane into which she was about to turn—just ahead. "Though," continued Mrs. Dollery, "'tis such a little small place that, as a town gentleman, you'd need have a candle and lantern to find it if ye don't know where 'tis. Bedad! I wouldn't live there if they'd pay me to. Now at Great Hintock you do see the world a bit."
He mounted and sat beside her, with his feet outside, where they were ever and anon brushed over by the horse's tail.
This van, driven and owned by Mrs. Dollery, was rather a movable attachment of the roadway than an extraneous object, to those who knew it well. The old horse, whose hair was of the roughness and color of heather, whose leg-joints, shoulders, and hoofs were distorted by harness and drudgery from colthood—though if all had their rights, he ought, symmetrical in outline, to have been picking the herbage of some Eastern plain instead of tugging here—had trodden this road almost daily for twenty years. Even his subjection was not made congruous throughout, for the harness being too short, his tail was not drawn through the crupper, so that the breeching slipped awkwardly to one side. He knew every subtle incline of the seven or eight miles of ground between Hintock and Sherton Abbas—the market-town to which he journeyed—as accurately as any surveyor could have learned it by a Dumpy level.
The vehicle had a square black tilt which nodded with the motion of the wheels, and at a point in it over the driver's head was a hook to which the reins were hitched at times, when they formed a catenary curve from the horse's shoulders. Somewhere about the axles was a loose chain, whose only known purpose was to clink as it went. Mrs. Dollery, having to hop up and down many times in the service of her passengers, wore, especially in windy weather, short leggings under her gown for modesty's sake, and instead of a bonnet a felt hat tied down with a handkerchief, to guard against an earache to which she was frequently subject. In the rear of the van was a glass window, which she cleaned with her pocket-handkerchief every market-day before starting. Looking at the van from the back, the spectator could thus see through its interior a square piece of the same sky and landscape that he saw without, but intruded on by the profiles of the seated passengers, who, as they rumbled onward, their lips moving and heads nodding in animated private converse, remained in happy unconsciousness that their mannerisms and facial peculiarities were sharply defined to the public eye.
This hour of coming home from market was the happy one, if not the happiest, of the week for them. Snugly ensconced under the tilt, they could forget the sorrows of the world without, and survey life and recapitulate the incidents of the day with placid smiles.
The passengers in the back part formed a group to themselves, and while the new-comer spoke to the proprietress, they indulged in a confidential chat about him as about other people, which the noise of the van rendered inaudible to himself and Mrs. Dollery, sitting forward.
"'Tis Barber Percombe—he that's got the waxen woman in his window at the top of Abbey Street," said one. "What business can bring him from his shop out here at this time and not a journeyman hair-cutter, but a master-barber that's left off his pole because 'tis not genteel!"
They listened to his conversation, but Mr. Percombe, though he had nodded and spoken genially, seemed indisposed to gratify the curiosity which he had aroused; and the unrestrained flow of ideas which had animated the inside of the van before his arrival was checked thenceforward.
Thus they rode on till they turned into a half-invisible little lane, whence, as it reached the verge of an eminence, could be discerned in the dusk, about half a mile to the right, gardens and orchards sunk in a concave, and, as it were, snipped out of the woodland. From this self-contained place rose in stealthy silence tall stems of smoke, which the eye of imagination could trace downward to their root on quiet hearth-stones festooned overhead with hams and flitches. It was one of those sequestered spots outside the gates of the world where may usually be found more meditation than action, and more passivity than meditation; where reasoning proceeds on narrow premises, and results in inferences wildly imaginative; yet where, from time to time, no less than in other places, dramas of a grandeur and unity truly Sophoclean are enacted in the real, by virtue of the concentrated passions and closely knit interdependence of the lives therein.
This place was the Little Hintock of the master-barber's search. The coming night gradually obscured the smoke of the chimneys, but the position of the sequestered little world could still be distinguished by a few faint lights, winking more or less ineffectually through the leafless boughs, and the undiscerned songsters they bore, in the form of balls of feathers, at roost among them.
Out of the lane followed by the van branched a yet smaller lane, at the corner of which the barber alighted, Mrs. Dollery's van going on to the larger village, whose superiority to the despised smaller one as an exemplar of the world's movements was not particularly apparent in its means of approach.
"A very clever and learned young doctor, who, they say, is in league with the devil, lives in the place you be going to—not because there's anybody for'n to cure there, but because 'tis the middle of his district."
The observation was flung at the barber by one of the women at parting, as a last attempt to get at his errand that way.
But he made no reply, and without further pause the pedestrian plunged towards the umbrageous nook, and paced cautiously over the dead leaves which nearly buried the road or street of the hamlet. As very few people except themselves passed this way after dark, a majority of the denizens of Little Hintock deemed window-curtains unnecessary; and on this account Mr. Percombe made it his business to stop opposite the casements of each cottage that he came to, with a demeanor which showed that he was endeavoring to conjecture, from the persons and things he observed within, the whereabouts of somebody or other who resided here.
Only the smaller dwellings interested him; one or two houses, whose size, antiquity, and rambling appurtenances signified that notwithstanding their remoteness they must formerly have been, if they were not still, inhabited by people of a certain social standing, being neglected by him entirely. Smells of pomace, and the hiss of fermenting cider, which reached him from the back quarters of other tenements, revealed the recent occupation of some of the inhabitants, and joined with the scent of decay from the perishing leaves underfoot.
Half a dozen dwellings were passed without result. The next, which stood opposite a tall tree, was in an exceptional state of radiance, the flickering brightness from the inside shining up the chimney and making a luminous mist of the emerging smoke. The interior, as seen through the window, caused him to draw up with a terminative air and watch. The house was rather large for a cottage, and the door, which opened immediately into the living-room, stood ajar, so that a ribbon of light fell through the opening into the dark atmosphere without. Every now and then a moth, decrepit from the late season, would flit for a moment across the out-coming rays and disappear again into the night.
In the room from which this cheerful blaze proceeded, he beheld a girl seated on a willow chair, and busily occupied by the light of the fire, which was ample and of wood. With a bill-hook in one hand and a leather glove, much too large for her, on the other, she was making spars, such as are used by thatchers, with great rapidity. She wore a leather apron for this purpose, which was also much too large for her figure. On her left hand lay a bundle of the straight, smooth sticks called spar-gads—the raw material of her manufacture; on her right, a heap of chips and ends—the refuse—with which the fire was maintained; in front, a pile of the finished articles. To produce them she took up each gad, looked critically at it from end to end, cut it to length, split it into four, and sharpened each of the quarters with dexterous blows, which brought it to a triangular point precisely resembling that of a bayonet.
Beside her, in case she might require more light, a brass candlestick stood on a little round table, curiously formed of an old coffin-stool, with a deal top nailed on, the white surface of the latter contrasting oddly with the black carved oak of the substructure. The social position of the household in the past was almost as definitively shown by the presence of this article as that of an esquire or nobleman by his old helmets or shields. It had been customary for every well-to-do villager, whose tenure was by copy of court-roll, or in any way more permanent than that of the mere cotter, to keep a pair of these stools for the use of his own dead; but for the last generation or two a feeling of cui bono had led to the discontinuance of the custom, and the stools were frequently made use of in the manner described.
The young woman laid down the bill-hook for a moment and examined the palm of her right hand, which, unlike the other, was ungloved, and showed little hardness or roughness about it. The palm was red and blistering, as if this present occupation were not frequent enough with her to subdue it to what it worked in. As with so many right hands born to manual labor, there was nothing in its fundamental shape to bear out the physiological conventionalism that gradations of birth, gentle or mean, show themselves primarily in the form of this member. Nothing but a cast of the die of destiny had decided that the girl should handle the tool; and the fingers which clasped the heavy ash haft might have skilfully guided the pencil or swept the string, had they only been set to do it in good time.
Her face had the usual fulness of expression which is developed by a life of solitude. Where the eyes of a multitude beat like waves upon a countenance they seem to wear away its individuality; but in the still water of privacy every tentacle of feeling and sentiment shoots out in visible luxuriance, to be interpreted as readily as a child's look by an intruder. In years she was no more than nineteen or twenty, but the necessity of taking thought at a too early period of life had forced the provisional curves of her childhood's face to a premature finality. Thus she had but little pretension to beauty, save in one prominent particular—her hair. Its abundance made it almost unmanageable; its color was, roughly speaking, and as seen here by firelight, brown, but careful notice, or an observation by day, would have revealed that its true shade was a rare and beautiful approximation to chestnut.
On this one bright gift of Time to the particular victim of his now before us the new-comer's eyes were fixed; meanwhile the fingers of his right hand mechanically played over something sticking up from his waistcoat-pocket—the bows of a pair of scissors, whose polish made them feebly responsive to the light within. In her present beholder's mind the scene formed by the girlish spar-maker composed itself into a post-Raffaelite picture of extremest quality, wherein the girl's hair alone, as the focus of observation, was depicted with intensity and distinctness, and her face, shoulders, hands, and figure in general, being a blurred mass of unimportant detail lost in haze and obscurity.
He hesitated no longer, but tapped at the door and entered. The young woman turned at the crunch of his boots on the sanded floor, and exclaiming, "Oh, Mr. Percombe, how you frightened me!" quite lost her color for a moment.
He replied, "You should shut your door—then you'd hear folk open it."
"I can't," she said; "the chimney smokes so. Mr. Percombe, you look as unnatural out of your shop as a canary in a thorn-hedge. Surely you have not come out here on my account—for—"
"Yes—to have your answer about this." He touched her head with his cane, and she winced. "Do you agree?" he continued. "It is necessary that I should know at once, as the lady is soon going away, and it takes time to make up."
"Don't press me—it worries me. I was in hopes you had thought no more of it. I can NOT part with it—so there!"
"Now, look here, Marty," said the barber, sitting down on the coffin-stool table. "How much do you get for making these spars?"
"Hush—father's up-stairs awake, and he don't know that I am doing his work."
"Well, now tell me," said the man, more softly. "How much do you get?"
"Eighteenpence a thousand," she said, reluctantly.
"Who are you making them for?"
"Mr. Melbury, the timber-dealer, just below here."
"And how many can you make in a day?"
"In a day and half the night, three bundles—that's a thousand and a half."
"Two and threepence." The barber paused. "Well, look here," he continued, with the remains of a calculation in his tone, which calculation had been the reduction to figures of the probable monetary magnetism necessary to overpower the resistant force of her present purse and the woman's love of comeliness, "here's a sovereign—a gold sovereign, almost new." He held it out between his finger and thumb. "That's as much as you'd earn in a week and a half at that rough man's work, and it's yours for just letting me snip off what you've got too much of."
The girl's bosom moved a very little. "Why can't the lady send to some other girl who don't value her hair—not to me?" she exclaimed.
"Why, simpleton, because yours is the exact shade of her own, and 'tis a shade you can't match by dyeing. But you are not going to refuse me now I've come all the way from Sherton o' purpose?"
"I say I won't sell it—to you or anybody."
"Now listen," and he drew up a little closer beside her. "The lady is very rich, and won't be particular to a few shillings; so I will advance to this on my own responsibility—I'll make the one sovereign two, rather than go back empty-handed."
"No, no, no!" she cried, beginning to be much agitated. "You are a-tempting me, Mr. Percombe. You go on like the Devil to Dr. Faustus in the penny book. But I don't want your money, and won't agree. Why did you come? I said when you got me into your shop and urged me so much, that I didn't mean to sell my hair!" The speaker was hot and stern.
"Marty, now hearken. The lady that wants it wants it badly. And, between you and me, you'd better let her have it. 'Twill be bad for you if you don't."
"Bad for me? Who is she, then?"
The barber held his tongue, and the girl repeated the question.
"I am not at liberty to tell you. And as she is going abroad soon it makes no difference who she is at all."
"She wants it to go abroad wi'?"
Percombe assented by a nod. The girl regarded him reflectively. "Barber Percombe," she said, "I know who 'tis. 'Tis she at the House—Mrs. Charmond!"
"That's my secret. However, if you agree to let me have it, I'll tell you in confidence."
"I'll certainly not let you have it unless you tell me the truth. It is Mrs. Charmond."
The barber dropped his voice. "Well—it is. You sat in front of her in church the other day, and she noticed how exactly your hair matched her own. Ever since then she's been hankering for it, and at last decided to get it. As she won't wear it till she goes off abroad, she knows nobody will recognize the change. I'm commissioned to get it for her, and then it is to be made up. I shouldn't have vamped all these miles for any less important employer. Now, mind—'tis as much as my business with her is worth if it should be known that I've let out her name; but honor between us two, Marty, and you'll say nothing that would injure me?"
"I don't wish to tell upon her," said Marty, coolly. "But my hair is my own, and I'm going to keep it."
"Now, that's not fair, after what I've told you," said the nettled barber. "You see, Marty, as you are in the same parish, and in one of her cottages, and your father is ill, and wouldn't like to turn out, it would be as well to oblige her. I say that as a friend. But I won't press you to make up your mind to-night. You'll be coming to market to-morrow, I dare say, and you can call then. If you think it over you'll be inclined to bring what I want, I know."
"I've nothing more to say," she answered.
Her companion saw from her manner that it was useless to urge her further by speech. "As you are a trusty young woman," he said, "I'll put these sovereigns up here for ornament, that you may see how handsome they are. Bring the hair to-morrow, or return the sovereigns." He stuck them edgewise into the frame of a small mantle looking-glass. "I hope you'll bring it, for your sake and mine. I should have thought she could have suited herself elsewhere; but as it's her fancy it must be indulged if possible. If you cut it off yourself, mind how you do it so as to keep all the locks one way." He showed her how this was to be done.
"But I sha'nt," she replied, with laconic indifference. "I value my looks too much to spoil 'em. She wants my hair to get another lover with; though if stories are true she's broke the heart of many a noble gentleman already."
"Lord, it's wonderful how you guess things, Marty," said the barber. "I've had it from them that know that there certainly is some foreign gentleman in her eye. However, mind what I ask."
"She's not going to get him through me."
Percombe had retired as far as the door; he came back, planted his cane on the coffin-stool, and looked her in the face. "Marty South," he said, with deliberate emphasis, "YOU'VE GOT A LOVER YOURSELF, and that's why you won't let it go!"
She reddened so intensely as to pass the mild blush that suffices to heighten beauty; she put the yellow leather glove on one hand, took up the hook with the other, and sat down doggedly to her work without turning her face to him again. He regarded her head for a moment, went to the door, and with one look back at her, departed on his way homeward.
Marty pursued her occupation for a few minutes, then suddenly laying down the bill-hook, she jumped up and went to the back of the room, where she opened a door which disclosed a staircase so whitely scrubbed that the grain of the wood was wellnigh sodden away by such cleansing. At the top she gently approached a bedroom, and without entering, said, "Father, do you want anything?"
A weak voice inside answered in the negative; adding, "I should be all right by to-morrow if it were not for the tree!"
"The tree again—always the tree! Oh, father, don't worry so about that. You know it can do you no harm."
"Who have ye had talking to ye down-stairs?"
"A Sherton man called—nothing to trouble about," she said, soothingly. "Father," she went on, "can Mrs. Charmond turn us out of our house if she's minded to?"
"Turn us out? No. Nobody can turn us out till my poor soul is turned out of my body. 'Tis life-hold, like Ambrose Winterborne's. But when my life drops 'twill be hers—not till then." His words on this subject so far had been rational and firm enough. But now he lapsed into his moaning strain: "And the tree will do it—that tree will soon be the death of me."
"Nonsense, you know better. How can it be?" She refrained from further speech, and descended to the ground-floor again.
"Thank Heaven, then," she said to herself, "what belongs to me I keep."
The lights in the village went out, house after house, till there only remained two in the darkness. One of these came from a residence on the hill-side, of which there is nothing to say at present; the other shone from the window of Marty South. Precisely the same outward effect was produced here, however, by her rising when the clock struck ten and hanging up a thick cloth curtain. The door it was necessary to keep ajar in hers, as in most cottages, because of the smoke; but she obviated the effect of the ribbon of light through the chink by hanging a cloth over that also. She was one of those people who, if they have to work harder than their neighbors, prefer to keep the necessity a secret as far as possible; and but for the slight sounds of wood-splintering which came from within, no wayfarer would have perceived that here the cottager did not sleep as elsewhere.
Eleven, twelve, one o'clock struck; the heap of spars grew higher, and the pile of chips and ends more bulky. Even the light on the hill had now been extinguished; but still she worked on. When the temperature of the night without had fallen so low as to make her chilly, she opened a large blue umbrella to ward off the draught from the door. The two sovereigns confronted her from the looking-glass in such a manner as to suggest a pair of jaundiced eyes on the watch for an opportunity. Whenever she sighed for weariness she lifted her gaze towards them, but withdrew it quickly, stroking her tresses with her fingers for a moment, as if to assure herself that they were still secure. When the clock struck three she arose and tied up the spars she had last made in a bundle resembling those that lay against the wall.
She wrapped round her a long red woollen cravat and opened the door. The night in all its fulness met her flatly on the threshold, like the very brink of an absolute void, or the antemundane Ginnung-Gap believed in by her Teuton forefathers. For her eyes were fresh from the blaze, and here there was no street-lamp or lantern to form a kindly transition between the inner glare and the outer dark. A lingering wind brought to her ear the creaking sound of two over-crowded branches in the neighboring wood which were rubbing each other into wounds, and other vocalized sorrows of the trees, together with the screech of owls, and the fluttering tumble of some awkward wood-pigeon ill-balanced on its roosting-bough.
But the pupils of her young eyes soon expanded, and she could see well enough for her purpose. Taking a bundle of spars under each arm, and guided by the serrated line of tree-tops against the sky, she went some hundred yards or more down the lane till she reached a long open shed, carpeted around with the dead leaves that lay about everywhere. Night, that strange personality, which within walls brings ominous introspectiveness and self-distrust, but under the open sky banishes such subjective anxieties as too trivial for thought, inspired Marty South with a less perturbed and brisker manner now. She laid the spars on the ground within the shed and returned for more, going to and fro till her whole manufactured stock were deposited here.
This erection was the wagon-house of the chief man of business hereabout, Mr. George Melbury, the timber, bark, and copse-ware merchant for whom Marty's father did work of this sort by the piece. It formed one of the many rambling out-houses which surrounded his dwelling, an equally irregular block of building, whose immense chimneys could just be discerned even now. The four huge wagons under the shed were built on those ancient lines whose proportions have been ousted by modern patterns, their shapes bulging and curving at the base and ends like Trafalgar line-of-battle ships, with which venerable hulks, indeed, these vehicles evidenced a constructed spirit curiously in harmony. One was laden with sheep-cribs, another with hurdles, another with ash poles, and the fourth, at the foot of which she had placed her thatching-spars was half full of similar bundles.
She was pausing a moment with that easeful sense of accomplishment which follows work done that has been a hard struggle in the doing, when she heard a woman's voice on the other side of the hedge say, anxiously, "George!" In a moment the name was repeated, with "Do come indoors! What are you doing there?"
The cart-house adjoined the garden, and before Marty had moved she saw enter the latter from the timber-merchant's back door an elderly woman sheltering a candle with her hand, the light from which cast a moving thorn-pattern of shade on Marty's face. Its rays soon fell upon a man whose clothes were roughly thrown on, standing in advance of the speaker. He was a thin, slightly stooping figure, with a small nervous mouth and a face cleanly shaven; and he walked along the path with his eyes bent on the ground. In the pair Marty South recognized her employer Melbury and his wife. She was the second Mrs. Melbury, the first having died shortly after the birth of the timber-merchant's only child.
"'Tis no use to stay in bed," he said, as soon as she came up to where he was pacing restlessly about. "I can't sleep—I keep thinking of things, and worrying about the girl, till I'm quite in a fever of anxiety." He went on to say that he could not think why "she (Marty knew he was speaking of his daughter) did not answer his letter. She must be ill—she must, certainly," he said.
"No, no. 'Tis all right, George," said his wife; and she assured him that such things always did appear so gloomy in the night-time, if people allowed their minds to run on them; that when morning came it was seen that such fears were nothing but shadows. "Grace is as well as you or I," she declared.
But he persisted that she did not see all—that she did not see as much as he. His daughter's not writing was only one part of his worry. On account of her he was anxious concerning money affairs, which he would never alarm his mind about otherwise. The reason he gave was that, as she had nobody to depend upon for a provision but himself, he wished her, when he was gone, to be securely out of risk of poverty.
To this Mrs. Melbury replied that Grace would be sure to marry well, and that hence a hundred pounds more or less from him would not make much difference.
Her husband said that that was what she, Mrs. Melbury, naturally thought; but there she was wrong, and in that lay the source of his trouble. "I have a plan in my head about her," he said; "and according to my plan she won't marry a rich man."
"A plan for her not to marry well?" said his wife, surprised.
"Well, in one sense it is that," replied Melbury. "It is a plan for her to marry a particular person, and as he has not so much money as she might expect, it might be called as you call it. I may not be able to carry it out; and even if I do, it may not be a good thing for her. I want her to marry Giles Winterborne."
His companion repeated the name. "Well, it is all right," she said, presently. "He adores the very ground she walks on; only he's close, and won't show it much."
Marty South appeared startled, and could not tear herself away.
Yes, the timber-merchant asserted, he knew that well enough. Winterborne had been interested in his daughter for years; that was what had led him into the notion of their union. And he knew that she used to have no objection to him. But it was not any difficulty about that which embarrassed him. It was that, since he had educated her so well, and so long, and so far above the level of daughters thereabout, it was "wasting her" to give her to a man of no higher standing than the young man in question.
"That's what I have been thinking," said Mrs. Melbury.
"Well, then, Lucy, now you've hit it," answered the timber-merchant, with feeling. "There lies my trouble. I vowed to let her marry him, and to make her as valuable as I could to him by schooling her as many years and as thoroughly as possible. I mean to keep my vow. I made it because I did his father a terrible wrong; and it was a weight on my conscience ever since that time till this scheme of making amends occurred to me through seeing that Giles liked her."
"Wronged his father?" asked Mrs. Melbury.
"Yes, grievously wronged him," said her husband.
"Well, don't think of it to-night," she urged. "Come indoors."
"No, no, the air cools my head. I shall not stay long." He was silent a while; then he told her, as nearly as Marty could gather, that his first wife, his daughter Grace's mother, was first the sweetheart of Winterborne's father, who loved her tenderly, till he, the speaker, won her away from him by a trick, because he wanted to marry her himself. He sadly went on to say that the other man's happiness was ruined by it; that though he married Winterborne's mother, it was but a half-hearted business with him. Melbury added that he was afterwards very miserable at what he had done; but that as time went on, and the children grew up, and seemed to be attached to each other, he determined to do all he could to right the wrong by letting his daughter marry the lad; not only that, but to give her the best education he could afford, so as to make the gift as valuable a one as it lay in his power to bestow. "I still mean to do it," said Melbury.
"Then do," said she.
"But all these things trouble me," said he; "for I feel I am sacrificing her for my own sin; and I think of her, and often come down here and look at this."
"Look at what?" asked his wife.
He took the candle from her hand, held it to the ground, and removed a tile which lay in the garden-path. "'Tis the track of her shoe that she made when she ran down here the day before she went away all those months ago. I covered it up when she was gone; and when I come here and look at it, I ask myself again, why should she be sacrificed to a poor man?"
"It is not altogether a sacrifice," said the woman. "He is in love with her, and he's honest and upright. If she encourages him, what can you wish for more?"
"I wish for nothing definite. But there's a lot of things possible for her. Why, Mrs. Charmond is wanting some refined young lady, I hear, to go abroad with her—as companion or something of the kind. She'd jump at Grace."
"That's all uncertain. Better stick to what's sure."
"True, true," said Melbury; "and I hope it will be for the best. Yes, let me get 'em married up as soon as I can, so as to have it over and done with." He continued looking at the imprint, while he added, "Suppose she should be dying, and never make a track on this path any more?"
"She'll write soon, depend upon't. Come, 'tis wrong to stay here and brood so."
He admitted it, but said he could not help it. "Whether she write or no, I shall fetch her in a few days." And thus speaking, he covered the track, and preceded his wife indoors.
Melbury, perhaps, was an unlucky man in having within him the sentiment which could indulge in this foolish fondness about the imprint of a daughter's footstep. Nature does not carry on her government with a view to such feelings, and when advancing years render the open hearts of those who possess them less dexterous than formerly in shutting against the blast, they must suffer "buffeting at will by rain and storm" no less than Little Celandines.
But her own existence, and not Mr. Melbury's, was the centre of Marty's consciousness, and it was in relation to this that the matter struck her as she slowly withdrew.
"That, then, is the secret of it all," she said. "And Giles Winterborne is not for me, and the less I think of him the better."
She returned to her cottage. The sovereigns were staring at her from the looking-glass as she had left them. With a preoccupied countenance, and with tears in her eyes, she got a pair of scissors, and began mercilessly cutting off the long locks of her hair, arranging and tying them with their points all one way, as the barber had directed. Upon the pale scrubbed deal of the coffin-stool table they stretched like waving and ropy weeds over the washed gravel-bed of a clear stream.
She would not turn again to the little looking-glass, out of humanity to herself, knowing what a deflowered visage would look back at her, and almost break her heart; she dreaded it as much as did her own ancestral goddess Sif the reflection in the pool after the rape of her locks by Loke the malicious. She steadily stuck to business, wrapped the hair in a parcel, and sealed it up, after which she raked out the fire and went to bed, having first set up an alarum made of a candle and piece of thread, with a stone attached.
But such a reminder was unnecessary to-night. Having tossed till about five o'clock, Marty heard the sparrows walking down their long holes in the thatch above her sloping ceiling to their orifice at the eaves; whereupon she also arose, and descended to the ground-floor again.
It was still dark, but she began moving about the house in those automatic initiatory acts and touches which represent among housewives the installation of another day. While thus engaged she heard the rumbling of Mr. Melbury's wagons, and knew that there, too, the day's toil had begun.
An armful of gads thrown on the still hot embers caused them to blaze up cheerfully and bring her diminished head-gear into sudden prominence as a shadow. At this a step approached the door.
"Are folk astir here yet?" inquired a voice she knew well.
"Yes, Mr. Winterborne," said Marty, throwing on a tilt bonnet, which completely hid the recent ravages of the scissors. "Come in!"
The door was flung back, and there stepped in upon the mat a man not particularly young for a lover, nor particularly mature for a person of affairs. There was reserve in his glance, and restraint upon his mouth. He carried a horn lantern which hung upon a swivel, and wheeling as it dangled marked grotesque shapes upon the shadier part of the walls.
He said that he had looked in on his way down, to tell her that they did not expect her father to make up his contract if he was not well. Mr. Melbury would give him another week, and they would go their journey with a short load that day.
"They are done," said Marty, "and lying in the cart-house."
"Done!" he repeated. "Your father has not been too ill to work after all, then?"
She made some evasive reply. "I'll show you where they be, if you are going down," she added.
They went out and walked together, the pattern of the air-holes in the top of the lantern being thrown upon the mist overhead, where they appeared of giant size, as if reaching the tent-shaped sky. They had no remarks to make to each other, and they uttered none. Hardly anything could be more isolated or more self-contained than the lives of these two walking here in the lonely antelucan hour, when gray shades, material and mental, are so very gray. And yet, looked at in a certain way, their lonely courses formed no detached design at all, but were part of the pattern in the great web of human doings then weaving in both hemispheres, from the White Sea to Cape Horn.
The shed was reached, and she pointed out the spars. Winterborne regarded them silently, then looked at her.
"Now, Marty, I believe—" he said, and shook his head.
"That you've done the work yourself."
"Don't you tell anybody, will you, Mr. Winterborne?" she pleaded, by way of answer. "Because I am afraid Mr. Melbury may refuse my work if he knows it is mine."
"But how could you learn to do it? 'Tis a trade."
"Trade!" said she. "I'd be bound to learn it in two hours."
"Oh no, you wouldn't, Mrs. Marty." Winterborne held down his lantern, and examined the cleanly split hazels as they lay. "Marty," he said, with dry admiration, "your father with his forty years of practice never made a spar better than that. They are too good for the thatching of houses—they are good enough for the furniture. But I won't tell. Let me look at your hands—your poor hands!"
He had a kindly manner of a quietly severe tone; and when she seemed reluctant to show her hands, he took hold of one and examined it as if it were his own. Her fingers were blistered.
"They'll get harder in time," she said. "For if father continues ill, I shall have to go on wi' it. Now I'll help put 'em up in wagon."
Winterborne without speaking set down his lantern, lifted her as she was about to stoop over the bundles, placed her behind him, and began throwing up the bundles himself. "Rather than you should do it I will," he said. "But the men will be here directly. Why, Marty!—whatever has happened to your head? Lord, it has shrunk to nothing—it looks an apple upon a gate-post!"
Her heart swelled, and she could not speak. At length she managed to groan, looking on the ground, "I've made myself ugly—and hateful—that's what I've done!"
"No, no," he answered. "You've only cut your hair—I see now.
"Then why must you needs say that about apples and gate-posts?"
"Let me see."
"No, no!" She ran off into the gloom of the sluggish dawn. He did not attempt to follow her. When she reached her father's door she stood on the step and looked back. Mr. Melbury's men had arrived, and were loading up the spars, and their lanterns appeared from the distance at which she stood to have wan circles round them, like eyes weary with watching. She observed them for a few seconds as they set about harnessing the horses, and then went indoors.
There was now a distinct manifestation of morning in the air, and presently the bleared white visage of a sunless winter day emerged like a dead-born child. The villagers everywhere had already bestirred themselves, rising at this time of the year at the far less dreary hour of absolute darkness. It had been above an hour earlier, before a single bird had untucked his head, that twenty lights were struck in as many bedrooms, twenty pairs of shutters opened, and twenty pairs of eyes stretched to the sky to forecast the weather for the day.
Owls that had been catching mice in the out-houses, rabbits that had been eating the wintergreens in the gardens, and stoats that had been sucking the blood of the rabbits, discerning that their human neighbors were on the move, discreetly withdrew from publicity, and were seen and heard no more that day.
The daylight revealed the whole of Mr. Melbury's homestead, of which the wagon-sheds had been an outlying erection. It formed three sides of an open quadrangle, and consisted of all sorts of buildings, the largest and central one being the dwelling itself. The fourth side of the quadrangle was the public road.
It was a dwelling-house of respectable, roomy, almost dignified aspect; which, taken with the fact that there were the remains of other such buildings thereabout, indicated that Little Hintock had at some time or other been of greater importance than now, as its old name of Hintock St. Osmond also testified. The house was of no marked antiquity, yet of well-advanced age; older than a stale novelty, but no canonized antique; faded, not hoary; looking at you from the still distinct middle-distance of the early Georgian time, and awakening on that account the instincts of reminiscence more decidedly than the remoter and far grander memorials which have to speak from the misty reaches of mediaevalism. The faces, dress, passions, gratitudes, and revenues of the great-great-grandfathers and grandmothers who had been the first to gaze from those rectangular windows, and had stood under that key-stoned doorway, could be divined and measured by homely standards of to-day. It was a house in whose reverberations queer old personal tales were yet audible if properly listened for; and not, as with those of the castle and cloister, silent beyond the possibility of echo.
The garden-front remained much as it had always been, and there was a porch and entrance that way. But the principal house-door opened on the square yard or quadrangle towards the road, formerly a regular carriage entrance, though the middle of the area was now made use of for stacking timber, fagots, bundles, and other products of the wood. It was divided from the lane by a lichen-coated wall, in which hung a pair of gates, flanked by piers out of the perpendicular, with a round white ball on the top of each.
The building on the left of the enclosure was a long-backed erection, now used for spar-making, sawing, crib-framing, and copse-ware manufacture in general. Opposite were the wagon-sheds where Marty had deposited her spars.
Here Winterborne had remained after the girl's abrupt departure, to see that the wagon-loads were properly made up. Winterborne was connected with the Melbury family in various ways. In addition to the sentimental relationship which arose from his father having been the first Mrs. Melbury's lover, Winterborne's aunt had married and emigrated with the brother of the timber-merchant many years before—an alliance that was sufficient to place Winterborne, though the poorer, on a footing of social intimacy with the Melburys. As in most villages so secluded as this, intermarriages were of Hapsburgian frequency among the inhabitants, and there were hardly two houses in Little Hintock unrelated by some matrimonial tie or other.
For this reason a curious kind of partnership existed between Melbury and the younger man—a partnership based upon an unwritten code, by which each acted in the way he thought fair towards the other, on a give-and-take principle. Melbury, with his timber and copse-ware business, found that the weight of his labor came in winter and spring. Winterborne was in the apple and cider trade, and his requirements in cartage and other work came in the autumn of each year. Hence horses, wagons, and in some degree men, were handed over to him when the apples began to fall; he, in return, lending his assistance to Melbury in the busiest wood-cutting season, as now.
Before he had left the shed a boy came from the house to ask him to remain till Mr. Melbury had seen him. Winterborne thereupon crossed over to the spar-house where two or three men were already at work, two of them being travelling spar-makers from White-hart Lane, who, when this kind of work began, made their appearance regularly, and when it was over disappeared in silence till the season came again.
Firewood was the one thing abundant in Little Hintock; and a blaze of gad-cuds made the outhouse gay with its light, which vied with that of the day as yet. In the hollow shades of the roof could be seen dangling etiolated arms of ivy which had crept through the joints of the tiles and were groping in vain for some support, their leaves being dwarfed and sickly for want of sunlight; others were pushing in with such force at the eaves as to lift from their supports the shelves that were fixed there.
Besides the itinerant journey-workers there were also present John Upjohn, engaged in the hollow-turnery trade, who lived hard by; old Timothy Tangs and young Timothy Tangs, top and bottom sawyers, at work in Mr. Melbury's pit outside; Farmer Bawtree, who kept the cider-house, and Robert Creedle, an old man who worked for Winterborne, and stood warming his hands; these latter being enticed in by the ruddy blaze, though they had no particular business there. None of them call for any remark except, perhaps, Creedle. To have completely described him it would have been necessary to write a military memoir, for he wore under his smock-frock a cast-off soldier's jacket that had seen hot service, its collar showing just above the flap of the frock; also a hunting memoir, to include the top-boots that he had picked up by chance; also chronicles of voyaging and shipwreck, for his pocket-knife had been given him by a weather-beaten sailor. But Creedle carried about with him on his uneventful rounds these silent testimonies of war, sport, and adventure, and thought nothing of their associations or their stories.
Copse-work, as it was called, being an occupation which the secondary intelligence of the hands and arms could carry on without requiring the sovereign attention of the head, the minds of its professors wandered considerably from the objects before them; hence the tales, chronicles, and ramifications of family history which were recounted here were of a very exhaustive kind, and sometimes so interminable as to defy description.
Winterborne, seeing that Melbury had not arrived, stepped back again outside the door; and the conversation interrupted by his momentary presence flowed anew, reaching his ears as an accompaniment to the regular dripping of the fog from the plantation boughs around.
The topic at present handled was a highly popular and frequent one—the personal character of Mrs. Charmond, the owner of the surrounding woods and groves.
"My brother-in-law told me, and I have no reason to doubt it," said Creedle, "that she'd sit down to her dinner with a frock hardly higher than her elbows. 'Oh, you wicked woman!' he said to himself when he first see her, 'you go to your church, and sit, and kneel, as if your knee-jints were greased with very saint's anointment, and tell off your Hear-us-good-Lords like a business man counting money; and yet you can eat your victuals such a figure as that!' Whether she's a reformed character by this time I can't say; but I don't care who the man is, that's how she went on when my brother-in-law lived there."
"Did she do it in her husband's time?"
"That I don't know—hardly, I should think, considering his temper. Ah!" Here Creedle threw grieved remembrance into physical form by slowly resigning his head to obliquity and letting his eyes water. "That man! 'Not if the angels of heaven come down, Creedle,' he said, 'shall you do another day's work for me!' Yes—he'd say anything—anything; and would as soon take a winged creature's name in vain as yours or mine! Well, now I must get these spars home-along, and to-morrow, thank God, I must see about using 'em."
An old woman now entered upon the scene. She was Mr. Melbury's servant, and passed a great part of her time in crossing the yard between the house-door and the spar-shed, whither she had come now for fuel. She had two facial aspects—one, of a soft and flexible kind, she used indoors when assisting about the parlor or upstairs; the other, with stiff lines and corners, when she was bustling among the men in the spar-house or out-of-doors.
"Ah, Grammer Oliver," said John Upjohn, "it do do my heart good to see a old woman like you so dapper and stirring, when I bear in mind that after fifty one year counts as two did afore! But your smoke didn't rise this morning till twenty minutes past seven by my beater; and that's late, Grammer Oliver."
"If you was a full-sized man, John, people might take notice of your scornful meanings. But your growing up was such a scrimped and scanty business that really a woman couldn't feel hurt if you were to spit fire and brimstone itself at her. Here," she added, holding out a spar-gad to one of the workmen, from which dangled a long black-pudding—"here's something for thy breakfast, and if you want tea you must fetch it from in-doors."
"Mr. Melbury is late this morning," said the bottom-sawyer.
"Yes. 'Twas a dark dawn," said Mrs. Oliver. "Even when I opened the door, so late as I was, you couldn't have told poor men from gentlemen, or John from a reasonable-sized object. And I don't think maister's slept at all well to-night. He's anxious about his daughter; and I know what that is, for I've cried bucketfuls for my own."
When the old woman had gone Creedle said,
"He'll fret his gizzard green if he don't soon hear from that maid of his. Well, learning is better than houses and lands. But to keep a maid at school till she is taller out of pattens than her mother was in 'em—'tis tempting Providence."
"It seems no time ago that she was a little playward girl," said young Timothy Tangs.
"I can mind her mother," said the hollow-turner. "Always a teuny, delicate piece; her touch upon your hand was as soft and cool as wind. She was inoculated for the small-pox and had it beautifully fine, just about the time that I was out of my apprenticeship—ay, and a long apprenticeship 'twas. I served that master of mine six years and three hundred and fourteen days."
The hollow-turner pronounced the days with emphasis, as if, considering their number, they were a rather more remarkable fact than the years.
"Mr. Winterborne's father walked with her at one time," said old Timothy Tangs. "But Mr. Melbury won her. She was a child of a woman, and would cry like rain if so be he huffed her. Whenever she and her husband came to a puddle in their walks together he'd take her up like a half-penny doll and put her over without dirting her a speck. And if he keeps the daughter so long at boarding-school, he'll make her as nesh as her mother was. But here he comes."
Just before this moment Winterborne had seen Melbury crossing the court from his door. He was carrying an open letter in his hand, and came straight to Winterborne. His gloom of the preceding night had quite gone.
"I'd no sooner made up my mind, Giles, to go and see why Grace didn't come or write than I get a letter from her—'Clifton: Wednesday. My dear father,' says she, 'I'm coming home to-morrow' (that's to-day), 'but I didn't think it worth while to write long beforehand.' The little rascal, and didn't she! Now, Giles, as you are going to Sherton market to-day with your apple-trees, why not join me and Grace there, and we'll drive home all together?"
He made the proposal with cheerful energy; he was hardly the same man as the man of the small dark hours. Ever it happens that even among the moodiest the tendency to be cheered is stronger than the tendency to be cast down; and a soul's specific gravity stands permanently less than that of the sea of troubles into which it is thrown.
Winterborne, though not demonstrative, replied to this suggestion with something like alacrity. There was not much doubt that Marty's grounds for cutting off her hair were substantial enough, if Ambrose's eyes had been a reason for keeping it on. As for the timber-merchant, it was plain that his invitation had been given solely in pursuance of his scheme for uniting the pair. He had made up his mind to the course as a duty, and was strenuously bent upon following it out.
Accompanied by Winterborne, he now turned towards the door of the spar-house, when his footsteps were heard by the men as aforesaid.
"Well, John, and Lot," he said, nodding as he entered. "A rimy morning."
"'Tis, sir!" said Creedle, energetically; for, not having as yet been able to summon force sufficient to go away and begin work, he felt the necessity of throwing some into his speech. "I don't care who the man is, 'tis the rimiest morning we've had this fall."
"I heard you wondering why I've kept my daughter so long at boarding-school," resumed Mr. Melbury, looking up from the letter which he was reading anew by the fire, and turning to them with the suddenness that was a trait in him. "Hey?" he asked, with affected shrewdness. "But you did, you know. Well, now, though it is my own business more than anybody else's, I'll tell ye. When I was a boy, another boy—the pa'son's son—along with a lot of others, asked me 'Who dragged Whom round the walls of What?' and I said, 'Sam Barrett, who dragged his wife in a chair round the tower corner when she went to be churched.' They laughed at me with such torrents of scorn that I went home ashamed, and couldn't sleep for shame; and I cried that night till my pillow was wet: till at last I thought to myself there and then—'They may laugh at me for my ignorance, but that was father's fault, and none o' my making, and I must bear it. But they shall never laugh at my children, if I have any: I'll starve first!' Thank God, I've been able to keep her at school without sacrifice; and her scholarship is such that she stayed on as governess for a time. Let 'em laugh now if they can: Mrs. Charmond herself is not better informed than my girl Grace."
There was something between high indifference and humble emotion in his delivery, which made it difficult for them to reply. Winterborne's interest was of a kind which did not show itself in words; listening, he stood by the fire, mechanically stirring the embers with a spar-gad.
"You'll be, then, ready, Giles?" Melbury continued, awaking from a reverie. "Well, what was the latest news at Shottsford yesterday, Mr. Bawtree?"
"Well, Shottsford is Shottsford still—you can't victual your carcass there unless you've got money; and you can't buy a cup of genuine there, whether or no....But as the saying is, 'Go abroad and you'll hear news of home.' It seems that our new neighbor, this young Dr. What's-his-name, is a strange, deep, perusing gentleman; and there's good reason for supposing he has sold his soul to the wicked one."
"'Od name it all," murmured the timber-merchant, unimpressed by the news, but reminded of other things by the subject of it; "I've got to meet a gentleman this very morning? and yet I've planned to go to Sherton Abbas for the maid."
"I won't praise the doctor's wisdom till I hear what sort of bargain he's made," said the top-sawyer.
"'Tis only an old woman's tale," said Bawtree. "But it seems that he wanted certain books on some mysterious science or black-art, and in order that the people hereabout should not know anything about his dark readings, he ordered 'em direct from London, and not from the Sherton book-seller. The parcel was delivered by mistake at the pa'son's, and he wasn't at home; so his wife opened it, and went into hysterics when she read 'em, thinking her husband had turned heathen, and 'twould be the ruin of the children. But when he came he said he knew no more about 'em than she; and found they were this Mr. Fitzpier's property. So he wrote 'Beware!' outside, and sent 'em on by the sexton."
"He must be a curious young man," mused the hollow-turner.
"He must," said Timothy Tangs.
"Nonsense," said Mr. Melbury, authoritatively, "he's only a gentleman fond of science and philosophy and poetry, and, in fact, every kind of knowledge; and being lonely here, he passes his time in making such matters his hobby."
"Well," said old Timothy, "'tis a strange thing about doctors that the worse they be the better they be. I mean that if you hear anything of this sort about 'em, ten to one they can cure ye as nobody else can."
"True," said Bawtree, emphatically. "And for my part I shall take my custom from old Jones and go to this one directly I've anything the matter with me. That last medicine old Jones gave me had no taste in it at all."
Mr. Melbury, as became a well-informed man, did not listen to these recitals, being moreover preoccupied with the business appointment which had come into his head. He walked up and down, looking on the floor—his usual custom when undecided. That stiffness about the arm, hip, and knee-joint which was apparent when he walked was the net product of the divers sprains and over-exertions that had been required of him in handling trees and timber when a young man, for he was of the sort called self-made, and had worked hard. He knew the origin of every one of these cramps: that in his left shoulder had come of carrying a pollard, unassisted, from Tutcombe Bottom home; that in one leg was caused by the crash of an elm against it when they were felling; that in the other was from lifting a bole. On many a morrow after wearying himself by these prodigious muscular efforts, he had risen from his bed fresh as usual; his lassitude had departed, apparently forever; and confident in the recuperative power of his youth, he had repeated the strains anew. But treacherous Time had been only hiding ill results when they could be guarded against, for greater accumulation when they could not. In his declining years the store had been unfolded in the form of rheumatisms, pricks, and spasms, in every one of which Melbury recognized some act which, had its consequence been contemporaneously made known, he would wisely have abstained from repeating.
On a summons by Grammer Oliver to breakfast, he left the shed. Reaching the kitchen, where the family breakfasted in winter to save house-labor, he sat down by the fire, and looked a long time at the pair of dancing shadows cast by each fire-iron and dog-knob on the whitewashed chimney-corner—a yellow one from the window, and a blue one from the fire.
"I don't quite know what to do to-day," he said to his wife at last. "I've recollected that I promised to meet Mrs. Charmond's steward in Round Wood at twelve o'clock, and yet I want to go for Grace."
"Why not let Giles fetch her by himself? 'Twill bring 'em together all the quicker."
"I could do that—but I should like to go myself. I always have gone, without fail, every time hitherto. It has been a great pleasure to drive into Sherton, and wait and see her arrive; and perhaps she'll be disappointed if I stay away."
"Yon may be disappointed, but I don't think she will, if you send Giles," said Mrs. Melbury, dryly.
"Very well—I'll send him."
Melbury was often persuaded by the quietude of his wife's words when strenuous argument would have had no effect. This second Mrs. Melbury was a placid woman, who had been nurse to his child Grace before her mother's death. After that melancholy event little Grace had clung to the nurse with much affection; and ultimately Melbury, in dread lest the only woman who cared for the girl should be induced to leave her, persuaded the mild Lucy to marry him. The arrangement—for it was little more—had worked satisfactorily enough; Grace had thriven, and Melbury had not repented.
He returned to the spar-house and found Giles near at hand, to whom he explained the change of plan. "As she won't arrive till five o'clock, you can get your business very well over in time to receive her," said Melbury. "The green gig will do for her; you'll spin along quicker with that, and won't be late upon the road. Her boxes can be called for by one of the wagons."
Winterborne, knowing nothing of the timber-merchant's restitutory aims, quietly thought all this to be a kindly chance. Wishing even more than her father to despatch his apple-tree business in the market before Grace's arrival, he prepared to start at once.
Melbury was careful that the turnout should be seemly. The gig-wheels, for instance, were not always washed during winter-time before a journey, the muddy roads rendering that labor useless; but they were washed to-day. The harness was blacked, and when the rather elderly white horse had been put in, and Winterborne was in his seat ready to start, Mr. Melbury stepped out with a blacking-brush, and with his own hands touched over the yellow hoofs of the animal.
"You see, Giles," he said, as he blacked, "coming from a fashionable school, she might feel shocked at the homeliness of home; and 'tis these little things that catch a dainty woman's eye if they are neglected. We, living here alone, don't notice how the whitey-brown creeps out of the earth over us; but she, fresh from a city—why, she'll notice everything!"
"That she will," said Giles.
"And scorn us if we don't mind."
"Not scorn us."
"No, no, no—that's only words. She's too good a girl to do that. But when we consider what she knows, and what she has seen since she last saw us, 'tis as well to meet her views as nearly as possible. Why, 'tis a year since she was in this old place, owing to her going abroad in the summer, which I agreed to, thinking it best for her; and naturally we shall look small, just at first—I only say just at first."
Mr. Melbury's tone evinced a certain exultation in the very sense of that inferiority he affected to deplore; for this advanced and refined being, was she not his own all the time? Not so Giles; he felt doubtful—perhaps a trifle cynical—for that strand was wound into him with the rest. He looked at his clothes with misgiving, then with indifference.
It was his custom during the planting season to carry a specimen apple-tree to market with him as an advertisement of what he dealt in. This had been tied across the gig; and as it would be left behind in the town, it would cause no inconvenience to Miss Grace Melbury coming home.
He drove away, the twigs nodding with each step of the horse; and Melbury went in-doors. Before the gig had passed out of sight, Mr. Melbury reappeared and shouted after—
"Here, Giles," he said, breathlessly following with some wraps, "it may be very chilly to-night, and she may want something extra about her. And, Giles," he added, when the young man, having taken the articles, put the horse in motion once more, "tell her that I should have come myself, but I had particular business with Mrs. Charmond's agent, which prevented me. Don't forget."
He watched Winterborne out of sight, saying, with a jerk—a shape into which emotion with him often resolved itself—"There, now, I hope the two will bring it to a point and have done with it! 'Tis a pity to let such a girl throw herself away upon him—a thousand pities!...And yet 'tis my duty for his father's sake."
Winterborne sped on his way to Sherton Abbas without elation and without discomposure. Had he regarded his inner self spectacularly, as lovers are now daily more wont to do, he might have felt pride in the discernment of a somewhat rare power in him—that of keeping not only judgment but emotion suspended in difficult cases. But he noted it not. Neither did he observe what was also the fact, that though he cherished a true and warm feeling towards Grace Melbury, he was not altogether her fool just now. It must be remembered that he had not seen her for a year.
Arrived at the entrance to a long flat lane, which had taken the spirit out of many a pedestrian in times when, with the majority, to travel meant to walk, he saw before him the trim figure of a young woman in pattens, journeying with that steadfast concentration which means purpose and not pleasure. He was soon near enough to see that she was Marty South. Click, click, click went the pattens; and she did not turn her head.
She had, however, become aware before this that the driver of the approaching gig was Giles. She had shrunk from being overtaken by him thus; but as it was inevitable, she had braced herself up for his inspection by closing her lips so as to make her mouth quite unemotional, and by throwing an additional firmness into her tread.
"Why do you wear pattens, Marty? The turnpike is clean enough, although the lanes are muddy."
"They save my boots."
"But twelve miles in pattens—'twill twist your feet off. Come, get up and ride with me."
She hesitated, removed her pattens, knocked the gravel out of them against the wheel, and mounted in front of the nodding specimen apple-tree. She had so arranged her bonnet with a full border and trimmings that her lack of long hair did not much injure her appearance; though Giles, of course, saw that it was gone, and may have guessed her motive in parting with it, such sales, though infrequent, being not unheard of in that locality.
But nature's adornment was still hard by—in fact, within two feet of him, though he did not know it. In Marty's basket was a brown paper packet, and in the packet the chestnut locks, which, by reason of the barber's request for secrecy, she had not ventured to intrust to other hands.
Giles asked, with some hesitation, how her father was getting on.
He was better, she said; he would be able to work in a day or two; he would be quite well but for his craze about the tree falling on him.
"You know why I don't ask for him so often as I might, I suppose?" said Winterborne. "Or don't you know?"
"I think I do."
"Because of the houses?"
"Yes. I am afraid it may seem that my anxiety is about those houses, which I should lose by his death, more than about him. Marty, I do feel anxious about the houses, since half my income depends upon them; but I do likewise care for him; and it almost seems wrong that houses should be leased for lives, so as to lead to such mixed feelings."
"After father's death they will be Mrs. Charmond's?"
"They'll be hers."
"They are going to keep company with my hair," she thought.
Thus talking, they reached the town. By no pressure would she ride up the street with him. "That's the right of another woman," she said, with playful malice, as she put on her pattens. "I wonder what you are thinking of! Thank you for the lift in that handsome gig. Good-by."
He blushed a little, shook his head at her, and drove on ahead into the streets—the churches, the abbey, and other buildings on this clear bright morning having the liny distinctness of architectural drawings, as if the original dream and vision of the conceiving master-mason, some mediaeval Vilars or other unknown to fame, were for a few minutes flashed down through the centuries to an unappreciative age. Giles saw their eloquent look on this day of transparency, but could not construe it. He turned into the inn-yard.
Marty, following the same track, marched promptly to the hair-dresser's, Mr. Percombe's. Percombe was the chief of his trade in Sherton Abbas. He had the patronage of such county offshoots as had been obliged to seek the shelter of small houses in that ancient town, of the local clergy, and so on, for some of whom he had made wigs, while others among them had compensated for neglecting him in their lifetime by patronizing him when they were dead, and letting him shave their corpses. On the strength of all this he had taken down his pole, and called himself "Perruquier to the aristocracy."
Nevertheless, this sort of support did not quite fill his children's mouths, and they had to be filled. So, behind his house there was a little yard, reached by a passage from the back street, and in that yard was a pole, and under the pole a shop of quite another description than the ornamental one in the front street. Here on Saturday nights from seven till ten he took an almost innumerable succession of twopences from the farm laborers who flocked thither in crowds from the country. And thus he lived.
Marty, of course, went to the front shop, and handed her packet to him silently. "Thank you," said the barber, quite joyfully. "I hardly expected it after what you said last night."
She turned aside, while a tear welled up and stood in each eye at this reminder.
"Nothing of what I told you," he whispered, there being others in the shop. "But I can trust you, I see."
She had now reached the end of this distressing business, and went listlessly along the street to attend to other errands. These occupied her till four o'clock, at which time she recrossed the market-place. It was impossible to avoid rediscovering Winterborne every time she passed that way, for standing, as he always did at this season of the year, with his specimen apple-tree in the midst, the boughs rose above the heads of the crowd, and brought a delightful suggestion of orchards among the crowded buildings there. When her eye fell upon him for the last time he was standing somewhat apart, holding the tree like an ensign, and looking on the ground instead of pushing his produce as he ought to have been doing. He was, in fact, not a very successful seller either of his trees or of his cider, his habit of speaking his mind, when he spoke at all, militating against this branch of his business.
While she regarded him he suddenly lifted his eyes in a direction away from Marty, his face simultaneously kindling with recognition and surprise. She followed his gaze, and saw walking across to him a flexible young creature in whom she perceived the features of her she had known as Miss Grace Melbury, but now looking glorified and refined above her former level. Winterborne, being fixed to the spot by his apple-tree, could not advance to meet her; he held out his spare hand with his hat in it, and with some embarrassment beheld her coming on tiptoe through the mud to the middle of the square where he stood.
Miss Melbury's arrival so early was, as Marty could see, unexpected by Giles, which accounted for his not being ready to receive her. Indeed, her father had named five o'clock as her probable time, for which reason that hour had been looming out all the day in his forward perspective, like an important edifice on a plain. Now here she was come, he knew not how, and his arranged welcome stultified.
His face became gloomy at her necessity for stepping into the road, and more still at the little look of embarrassment which appeared on hers at having to perform the meeting with him under an apple-tree ten feet high in the middle of the market-place. Having had occasion to take off the new gloves she had bought to come home in, she held out to him a hand graduating from pink at the tips of the fingers to white at the palm; and the reception formed a scene, with the tree over their heads, which was not by any means an ordinary one in Sherton Abbas streets.
Nevertheless, the greeting on her looks and lips was of a restrained type, which perhaps was not unnatural. For true it was that Giles Winterborne, well-attired and well-mannered as he was for a yeoman, looked rough beside her. It had sometimes dimly occurred to him, in his ruminating silence at Little Hintock, that external phenomena—such as the lowness or height or color of a hat, the fold of a coat, the make of a boot, or the chance attitude or occupation of a limb at the instant of view—may have a great influence upon feminine opinion of a man's worth—so frequently founded on non-essentials; but a certain causticity of mental tone towards himself and the world in general had prevented to-day, as always, any enthusiastic action on the strength of that reflection; and her momentary instinct of reserve at first sight of him was the penalty he paid for his laxness.
He gave away the tree to a by-stander, as soon as he could find one who would accept the cumbersome gift, and the twain moved on towards the inn at which he had put up. Marty made as if to step forward for the pleasure of being recognized by Miss Melbury; but abruptly checking herself, she glided behind a carrier's van, saying, dryly, "No; I baint wanted there," and critically regarded Winterborne's companion.
It would have been very difficult to describe Grace Melbury with precision, either now or at any time. Nay, from the highest point of view, to precisely describe a human being, the focus of a universe—how impossible! But, apart from transcendentalism, there never probably lived a person who was in herself more completely a reductio ad absurdum of attempts to appraise a woman, even externally, by items of face and figure. Speaking generally, it may be said that she was sometimes beautiful, at other times not beautiful, according to the state of her health and spirits.
In simple corporeal presentment she was of a fair and clear complexion, rather pale than pink, slim in build and elastic in movement. Her look expressed a tendency to wait for others' thoughts before uttering her own; possibly also to wait for others' deeds before her own doing. In her small, delicate mouth, which had perhaps hardly settled down to its matured curves, there was a gentleness that might hinder sufficient self-assertion for her own good. She had well-formed eyebrows which, had her portrait been painted, would probably have been done in Prout's or Vandyke brown.
There was nothing remarkable in her dress just now, beyond a natural fitness and a style that was recent for the streets of Sherton. But, indeed, had it been the reverse, and quite striking, it would have meant just as little. For there can be hardly anything less connected with a woman's personality than drapery which she has neither designed, manufactured, cut, sewed, or even seen, except by a glance of approval when told that such and such a shape and color must be had because it has been decided by others as imperative at that particular time.
What people, therefore, saw of her in a cursory view was very little; in truth, mainly something that was not she. The woman herself was a shadowy, conjectural creature who had little to do with the outlines presented to Sherton eyes; a shape in the gloom, whose true description could only be approximated by putting together a movement now and a glance then, in that patient and long-continued attentiveness which nothing but watchful loving-kindness ever troubles to give.
There was a little delay in their setting out from the town, and Marty South took advantage of it to hasten forward, with the view of escaping them on the way, lest they should feel compelled to spoil their tete-a-tete by asking her to ride. She walked fast, and one-third of the journey was done, and the evening rapidly darkening, before she perceived any sign of them behind her. Then, while ascending a hill, she dimly saw their vehicle drawing near the lowest part of the incline, their heads slightly bent towards each other; drawn together, no doubt, by their souls, as the heads of a pair of horses well in hand are drawn in by the rein. She walked still faster.
But between these and herself there was a carriage, apparently a brougham, coming in the same direction, with lighted lamps. When it overtook her—which was not soon, on account of her pace—the scene was much darker, and the lights glared in her eyes sufficiently to hide the details of the equipage.
It occurred to Marty that she might take hold behind this carriage and so keep along with it, to save herself the mortification of being overtaken and picked up for pity's sake by the coming pair. Accordingly, as the carriage drew abreast of her in climbing the long ascent, she walked close to the wheels, the rays of the nearest lamp penetrating her very pores. She had only just dropped behind when the carriage stopped, and to her surprise the coachman asked her, over his shoulder, if she would ride. What made the question more surprising was that it came in obedience to an order from the interior of the vehicle.
Marty gladly assented, for she was weary, very weary, after working all night and keeping afoot all day. She mounted beside the coachman, wondering why this good-fortune had happened to her. He was rather a great man in aspect, and she did not like to inquire of him for some time.
At last she said, "Who has been so kind as to ask me to ride?"
"Mrs. Charmond," replied her statuesque companion.
Marty was stirred at the name, so closely connected with her last night's experiences. "Is this her carriage?" she whispered.
"Yes; she's inside."
Marty reflected, and perceived that Mrs. Charmond must have recognized her plodding up the hill under the blaze of the lamp; recognized, probably, her stubbly poll (since she had kept away her face), and thought that those stubbles were the result of her own desire.
Marty South was not so very far wrong. Inside the carriage a pair of bright eyes looked from a ripely handsome face, and though behind those bright eyes was a mind of unfathomed mysteries, beneath them there beat a heart capable of quick extempore warmth—a heart which could, indeed, be passionately and imprudently warm on certain occasions. At present, after recognizing the girl, she had acted on a mere impulse, possibly feeling gratified at the denuded appearance which signified the success of her agent in obtaining what she had required.
"'Tis wonderful that she should ask ye," observed the magisterial coachman, presently. "I have never known her do it before, for as a rule she takes no interest in the village folk at all."
Marty said no more, but occasionally turned her head to see if she could get a glimpse of the Olympian creature who as the coachman had truly observed, hardly ever descended from her clouds into the Tempe of the parishioners. But she could discern nothing of the lady. She also looked for Miss Melbury and Winterborne. The nose of their horse sometimes came quite near the back of Mrs. Charmond's carriage. But they never attempted to pass it till the latter conveyance turned towards the park gate, when they sped by. Here the carriage drew up that the gate might be opened, and in the momentary silence Marty heard a gentle oral sound, soft as a breeze.
"What's that?" she whispered.
"Why should she yawn?"
"Oh, because she's been used to such wonderfully good life, and finds it dull here. She'll soon be off again on account of it."
"So rich and so powerful, and yet to yawn!" the girl murmured. "Then things don't fay with she any more than with we!"
Marty now alighted; the lamp again shone upon her, and as the carriage rolled on, a soft voice said to her from the interior, "Good-night."
"Good-night, ma'am," said Marty. But she had not been able to see the woman who began so greatly to interest her—the second person of her own sex who had operated strongly on her mind that day.
Meanwhile, Winterborne and Grace Melbury had also undergone their little experiences of the same homeward journey.
As he drove off with her out of the town the glances of people fell upon them, the younger thinking that Mr. Winterborne was in a pleasant place, and wondering in what relation he stood towards her. Winterborne himself was unconscious of this. Occupied solely with the idea of having her in charge, he did not notice much with outward eye, neither observing how she was dressed, nor the effect of the picture they together composed in the landscape.
Their conversation was in briefest phrase for some time, Grace being somewhat disconcerted, through not having understood till they were about to start that Giles was to be her sole conductor in place of her father. When they were in the open country he spoke.
"Don't Brownley's farm-buildings look strange to you, now they have been moved bodily from the hollow where the old ones stood to the top of the hill?"
She admitted that they did, though she should not have seen any difference in them if he had not pointed it out.
"They had a good crop of bitter-sweets; they couldn't grind them all" (nodding towards an orchard where some heaps of apples had been left lying ever since the ingathering).
She said "Yes," but looking at another orchard.
"Why, you are looking at John-apple-trees! You know bitter-sweets—you used to well enough!"
"I am afraid I have forgotten, and it is getting too dark to distinguish."
Winterborne did not continue. It seemed as if the knowledge and interest which had formerly moved Grace's mind had quite died away from her. He wondered whether the special attributes of his image in the past had evaporated like these other things.
However that might be, the fact at present was merely this, that where he was seeing John-apples and farm-buildings she was beholding a far remoter scene—a scene no less innocent and simple, indeed, but much contrasting—a broad lawn in the fashionable suburb of a fast city, the evergreen leaves shining in the evening sun, amid which bounding girls, gracefully clad in artistic arrangements of blue, brown, red, black, and white, were playing at games, with laughter and chat, in all the pride of life, the notes of piano and harp trembling in the air from the open windows adjoining. Moreover, they were girls—and this was a fact which Grace Melbury's delicate femininity could not lose sight of—whose parents Giles would have addressed with a deferential Sir or Madam. Beside this visioned scene the homely farmsteads did not quite hold their own from her present twenty-year point of survey. For all his woodland sequestration, Giles knew the primitive simplicity of the subject he had started, and now sounded a deeper note.
"'Twas very odd what we said to each other years ago; I often think of it. I mean our saying that if we still liked each other when you were twenty and I twenty-five, we'd—"
"It was child's tattle."
"H'm!" said Giles, suddenly.
"I mean we were young," said she, more considerately. That gruff manner of his in making inquiries reminded her that he was unaltered in much.
"Yes....I beg your pardon, Miss Melbury; your father SENT me to meet you to-day."
"I know it, and I am glad of it."
He seemed satisfied with her tone and went on: "At that time you were sitting beside me at the back of your father's covered car, when we were coming home from gypsying, all the party being squeezed in together as tight as sheep in an auction-pen. It got darker and darker, and I said—I forget the exact words—but I put my arm round your waist and there you let it stay till your father, sitting in front suddenly stopped telling his story to Farmer Bollen, to light his pipe. The flash shone into the car, and showed us all up distinctly; my arm flew from your waist like lightning; yet not so quickly but that some of 'em had seen, and laughed at us. Yet your father, to our amazement, instead of being angry, was mild as milk, and seemed quite pleased. Have you forgot all that, or haven't you?"
She owned that she remembered it very well, now that he mentioned the circumstances. "But, goodness! I must have been in short frocks," she said.
"Come now, Miss Melbury, that won't do! Short frocks, indeed! You know better, as well as I."
Grace thereupon declared that she would not argue with an old friend she valued so highly as she valued him, saying the words with the easy elusiveness that will be polite at all costs. It might possibly be true, she added, that she was getting on in girlhood when that event took place; but if it were so, then she was virtually no less than an old woman now, so far did the time seem removed from her present. "Do you ever look at things philosophically instead of personally?" she asked.
"I can't say that I do," answered Giles, his eyes lingering far ahead upon a dark spot, which proved to be a brougham.
"I think you may, sometimes, with advantage," said she. "Look at yourself as a pitcher drifting on the stream with other pitchers, and consider what contrivances are most desirable for avoiding cracks in general, and not only for saving your poor one. Shall I tell you all about Bath or Cheltenham, or places on the Continent that I visited last summer?"
"With all my heart."
She then described places and persons in such terms as might have been used for that purpose by any woman to any man within the four seas, so entirely absent from that description was everything specially appertaining to her own existence. When she had done she said, gayly, "Now do you tell me in return what has happened in Hintock since I have been away."
"Anything to keep the conversation away from her and me," said Giles within him.
It was true cultivation had so far advanced in the soil of Miss Melbury's mind as to lead her to talk by rote of anything save of that she knew well, and had the greatest interest in developing—that is to say, herself.
He had not proceeded far with his somewhat bald narration when they drew near the carriage that had been preceding them for some time. Miss Melbury inquired if he knew whose carriage it was.
Winterborne, although he had seen it, had not taken it into account. On examination, he said it was Mrs. Charmond's.
Grace watched the vehicle and its easy roll, and seemed to feel more nearly akin to it than to the one she was in.
"Pooh! We can polish off the mileage as well as they, come to that," said Winterborne, reading her mind; and rising to emulation at what it bespoke, he whipped on the horse. This it was which had brought the nose of Mr. Melbury's old gray close to the back of Mrs. Charmond's much-eclipsing vehicle.
"There's Marty South Sitting up with the coachman," said he, discerning her by her dress.
"Ah, poor Marty! I must ask her to come to see me this very evening. How does she happen to be riding there?"
"I don't know. It is very singular."
Thus these people with converging destinies went along the road together, till Winterborne, leaving the track of the carriage, turned into Little Hintock, where almost the first house was the timber-merchant's. Pencils of dancing light streamed out of the windows sufficiently to show the white laurestinus flowers, and glance over the polished leaves of laurel. The interior of the rooms could be seen distinctly, warmed up by the fire-flames, which in the parlor were reflected from the glass of the pictures and bookcase, and in the kitchen from the utensils and ware.
"Let us look at the dear place for a moment before we call them," she said.
In the kitchen dinner was preparing; for though Melbury dined at one o'clock at other times, to-day the meal had been kept back for Grace. A rickety old spit was in motion, its end being fixed in the fire-dog, and the whole kept going by means of a cord conveyed over pulleys along the ceiling to a large stone suspended in a corner of the room. Old Grammer Oliver came and wound it up with a rattle like that of a mill.
In the parlor a large shade of Mrs. Melbury's head fell on the wall and ceiling; but before the girl had regarded this room many moments their presence was discovered, and her father and stepmother came out to welcome her.
The character of the Melbury family was of that kind which evinces some shyness in showing strong emotion among each other: a trait frequent in rural households, and one which stands in curiously inverse relation to most of the peculiarities distinguishing villagers from the people of towns. Thus hiding their warmer feelings under commonplace talk all round, Grace's reception produced no extraordinary demonstrations. But that more was felt than was enacted appeared from the fact that her father, in taking her in-doors, quite forgot the presence of Giles without, as did also Grace herself. He said nothing, but took the gig round to the yard and called out from the spar-house the man who particularly attended to these matters when there was no conversation to draw him off among the copse-workers inside. Winterborne then returned to the door with the intention of entering the house.
The family had gone into the parlor, and were still absorbed in themselves. The fire was, as before, the only light, and it irradiated Grace's face and hands so as to make them look wondrously smooth and fair beside those of the two elders; shining also through the loose hair about her temples as sunlight through a brake. Her father was surveying her in a dazed conjecture, so much had she developed and progressed in manner and stature since he last had set eyes on her.
Observing these things, Winterborne remained dubious by the door, mechanically tracing with his fingers certain time-worn letters carved in the jambs—initials of by-gone generations of householders who had lived and died there.
No, he declared to himself, he would not enter and join the family; they had forgotten him, and it was enough for to-day that he had brought her home. Still, he was a little surprised that her father's eagerness to send him for Grace should have resulted in such an anticlimax as this.