I shall never forget Tonys face. It was a little, round, firm, tight face, with a seam here and there left by the small-pox, but not enough to hurt his looks in a woman's eye, though he'd had it badish when he was a boy. So very serious looking and unsmiling 'a was, that young man, that it really seemed as if he couldn't laugh at all without great pain to his conscience. He looked very hard at a small speck in your eye when talking to 'ee. And there was no more sign of a whisker or beard on Tony Kytes's face than on the palm of my hand. He used to sing "The Tailor's Breeches" with a religious manner, as if it were a hymn:
"O the petticoats went off, and the breeches they went on";
and all the rest of the scandalous stuff. He was quite the women's favorite, and in return for their likings he loved 'em in shoals.
But in course of time Tony got fixed down to one in particular, Milly Richards a nice, light, small, tender little thing; and it was soon said that they were engaged to be married. One Saturday he had been to market to do business for his father, and was driving home the wagon in the afternoon. When he reached the foot of the hill, who should he see waiting for him at the top but Unity Sallet, a handsome girl, one of the young women he'd been very tender towards before he'd got engaged to Milly.
As soon as Tony came up to her she said, "My dear Tony, will you give me a lift home?"
"That I will, darling," said Tony. "You don't suppose I could refuse 'ee?"
She smiled a smile, and up she hopped, and on drove Tony.
"Tony," she says, in a sort of tender chide, "why did ye desert me for that other one? In what is she better than I? I should have made 'ee a finer wife, and a more loving one, too. 'Tisn't girls that are so easily won at first that are the best. Think how long we've known each other ever since we were children almost now haven't we, Tony?"
"Yes, that we have," says Tony, a struck with the truth o't.
"And you've never seen anything in me to complain of, have ye, Tony? Now tell the truth to me."
"I never have, upon my life," says Tony.
"And can you say I'm not pretty, Tony? Now look at me.
He let his eyes light upon her for a long while. "I really can't," says he. "In fact, I never knowed you was so pretty before!"
"Prettier than she?"
What Tony would have said to that nobody knows, for before he could speak, what should he see ahead, over the hedge past the turning, but afeather he knew well the feather in Milly's hat she to whom he had been thinking of putting the question as to giving out the banns that very week.
"Unity," says he, as mild as he could, "here's Milly coming. Now I shall catch it mightily if she sees 'ee riding here with me; and if you get down she'll be turning the corner in a moment, and, seeing 'ee in the road, she'll know we've been coming on together. Now, dearest Unity, will ye, to avoid all unpleasantness, which I know ye can't bear any more than I, will ye lie down in the back part of the wagon, and let me cover you over with the tarpaulin till Milly has passed? It will all be done in a minute. Do! and I'll think over what we've said; and perhaps I shall put a loving question to you after all, instead of to Milly. 'Tisn't true that it is all settled between her and me."
Well, Unity Sallet agreed, and lay down at the back end of the wagon, and Tony covered her over, so that the wagon seemed to be empty but for the loose tarpaulin; and then he drove on to meet Milly.
"My dear Tony!" cries Milly, looking up with a little pout at him as he came near. "How long you've been coming home! Just as if I didn't live at Upper Longpuddle at all! And I've come to meet you as you asked me to do, and to ride back with you, and talk over our future home since you asked me, and I promised. But I shouldn't have come else, Mr. Tony!"
"Ay, my dear, I did ask ye to be sure I did, now I think of it but I had quite forgot it. To ride back with me, did you say, dear Milly?"
"Well, of course! What can I do else? Surely you don't want me to walk, now I've come all this way?"
"Oh no, no! I was thinking you might be going on to town to meet your mother. I saw her there and she looked as if she might be expecting 'ee."
"Oh no; she's just home. She came across the fields, and so got back before you."
"Ah! I didn't know that," says Tony. And there was no help for it but to take her up beside him.
They talked on very pleasantly, and looked at the trees and beasts and birds and insects, and at the plowmen at work in the fields, till presently who should they see looking out of the upper window of a house that stood beside the road they were following but Hannah Jolliver, another young beauty of the place at that time, and the very first woman that Tony had fallen in love with before Milly and before Unity, in fact the one that he had almost arranged to marry instead of Milly. She was a much more dashing girl than Milly Richards, though he'd not thought much of her of late. The house Hannah was looking from was her aunt's.
"My dear Milly my coming wife, as I may call 'ee," says Tony in his modest way, and not so loud that Unity could overhear "I see a young woman looking out of window who I think may accost me. The fact is, Milly, she had a notion that I was wishing to marry her, and since she's discovered I've promised another, and prettier than she, I'm rather afeared of her temper if she sees us together. Now, Milly, would you do me a favor my coming wife, as I may say?"
"Certainly, dearest Tony," says she.
"Then would ye creep under the tarpaulin just here in the front of the wagon, and hide there out of sight till we've passed the house? She hasn't seen us yet. You see, we ought to live in peace and good will since 'tis almost Christmas, and 'twill prevent angry passions rising, which we always should do."
"I don't mind, to oblige you, Tony," Milly said; and though she didn't care much about doing it, she crept under, and crouched down just behind the seat, Unity being snug at the other end. So they drove on till they got near the road-side cottage. Hannah had soon seen him coming, and waited at the window, looking down upon him. She tossed her head a little disdainful and smiled off-hand.
"Well, aren't you going to be civil enough to ask me to ride home with you?" she says, seeing that he was for driving past with a nod and a smile.
"Ah, to be sure! What was I thinking of?" said Tony, in a flutter. "But you seem as if you was staying at your aunt's?"
"No, I am not," she said. "Don't you see I have my bonnet and jacket on? I have only called to see her on my way home. How can you be so stupid, Tony?"
"In that case ah of course you must come along wi' me," says Tony, feeling a dim sort of sweat rising up inside his clothes. And he reined in the horse, and waited till she'd come down-stairs, and then helped her up beside him. He drove on again, his face as long as a face that was a round one by nature well could be.
Hannah looked round sideways into his eyes. "This is nice, isn't it, Tony?" she says. "I like riding with you."
Tony looked back into her eyes. "And I with you," he said after awhile. In short, having considered her, he warmed up, and the more he looked at her the more he liked her, till he couldn't for the life of him think why he had ever said a word about marriage to Milly or Unity while Hannah Jolliver was in question. So they sat a little closer and closer, their feet upon the foot-board and their shoulders touching, and Tony thought over and over again how handsome Hannah was. He spoke tenderer and tenderer, and called her "dear Hannah" in a whisper at last.
"You've settled it with Milly by this time, I suppose," said she.
"N no, not exactly."
"What? How low you talk, Tony."
"Yes I've a kind of hoarseness. I said, not exactly."
"I suppose you mean to?"
"Well, as to that " His eyes rested on her face, and hers on his. He wondered how he could have been such a fool as not to follow up Hannah. "My sweet Hannah!" he bursts out, taking her hand, not being really able to help it, and forgetting Milly and Unity and all the world besides. "Settled it? I don't think I have!"
"Hark!" says Hannah.
"What?" says Tony, letting go her hand.
"Surely I heard a sort of little screaming squeak under that tar-cloth? Why, you've been carrying corn, and there's mice in this wagon, I declare!" She began to haul up the tails of her gown.
"Oh no; 'tis the axle," said Tony, in an assuring way. "It do go like that sometimes in dry weather."
"Perhaps it was. . . . Well, now, to be quite honest, dear Tony, do you like her better than me? Because because, although I've held off so independent, I'll own at last that I do like 'ee, Tony, to tell the truth; and I wouldn't say no if you asked me you know what."
Tony was so won over by this pretty offering mood of a girl who had been quite the reverse (Hannah had a backward way with her at times, if you can mind) that he just glanced behind, and then whispered very soft, "I haven't quite promised her, and I think I can get out of it, and ask you that question you speak of."
"Throw over Milly? all to marry me! How delightful!" broke out Hannah, quite loud, clapping her hands.
At this there was a real squeak an angry, spiteful squeak, and afterwards a long moan, as if something had broke its heart, and a movement of the wagon cloth.
"Something's there!" said Hannah, starting up.
"It's nothing, really," says Tony, in a soothing voice, and praying inwardly for a way out of this. "I wouldn't tell 'ee at first, because I wouldn't frighten 'ee. But, Hannah, I've really a couple of ferrets in a bag under there, for rabbiting, and they quarrel sometimes. I don't wish it knowed, as 'twould be called poaching. Oh, they can't get out, bless ye! you are quite safe. And and what a fine day it is, isn't it, Hannah, for this time of year? Be you going to market next Saturday? How is your aunt now?" And so on,says Tony, to keep her from talking any more about love in Milly's hearing.
But he found his work cut out for him, and wondering again how he should get out of this ticklish business, he looked about for a chance. Nearing home he saw his father in a field not far off, holding up his hand as if he wished to speak to Tony.
"Would you mind taking the reins a moment, Hannah," he said, much relieved, while I go and find out what father wants?"
She consented, and away he hastened into the field only too glad to get breathing-time. He found that his father was looking at him with rather a stern eye.
"Come, come, Tony," says old Mr. Kytes, as soon as his son was alongside him, "this won't do, you know."
"What?" says Tony.
"Why, if you mean to marry Milly Richards, do it, and there's an end o't. But don't go driving about the country with Jollivers daughter and making a scandal. I won't have such things done."
"I only asked her that is, she asked me to ride home."
"She? Why, now, if it had been Milly, 'twould have been quite proper; but you and Hannah Jolliver going about by yourselves "
"Milly's there, too, father."
"Under the tarpaulin! Yes; the truth is, father, I've got rather into a nunny-watch, I'm afeard! Unity Sallet is there, too yes, under the other end of the tarpaulin. All three are in that wagon, and what to do with 'em I know no more than the dead. The best plan is, as I'm thinking, to speak out loud and plain to one of 'em before the rest, and that will settle it; not but what 'twill cause 'em to kick up a bit of a miff, for certain. Now, which would you marry, father, if you was in my place?"
"Whichever of 'em did not ask to ride with thee."
"That was Milly, I'm bound to say, as she only mounted by my invitation. But Milly"
"Then stick to Milly, she's the best. . . . But look at that!"
His father pointed towards the wagon. "She can't hold that horse in. You shouldn't have left the reins in her hands. Run on and take the horse's head, or there'll be some accident to them maids!"
Tony's horse, in fact, in spite of Hannah's tugging at the reins, had started on his way at a brisk walking pace, being very anxious to get back to the stable, for he had had a long day out. Without another word, Tony rushed away from his father to overtake the horse.
Now, of all things that could have happened to wean him from Milly, there was nothing so powerful as his father's recommending her. No; it could not be Milly, after all. Hannah must be the one, since he could not marry all three. This he thought while running after the wagon. But queer things were happening inside it.
It was, of course, Milly who had screamed under the tarpaulin, being obliged to let off her bitter rage and shame in that way at what Tony was saying, and never daring to show, for very pride and dread o' being laughed at, that she was in hiding. She became more and more restless, and in twisting herself about, what did she see but another woman's foot and white stocking close to her head. It quite frightened her, not knowing that Unity Sallet was in the wagon likewise. But after the fright was over she determined to get to the bottom of all this, and she crept and crept along the bed of the wagon, under the cloth, like a snake, when lo and behold she came face to face with Unity.
"Well, if this isn't disgraceful!" says Milly, in a raging whisper, to Unity.
" 'Tis," says Unity, "to see you hiding in a young man's wagon like this, and no great character belonging to either of ye!"
"Mind what you are saying!" replied Milly, getting louder. "I am engaged to be married to him, and haven't I a right to be here? What right have you, I should like to know? What has he been promising you? A pretty lot of nonsense, I expect! But what Tony says to other women is all mere wind, and no concern to me!"
"Don't you be too sure!" says Unity. "He's going to have Hannah, and not you, nor me either; I could hear that."
Now, at these strange voices sounding from under the cloth Hannah was thunderstruck a'most into a swound; and it was just at this time that the horse moved on. Hannah tugged away wildly, not knowing what she was doing; and as the quarrel rose louder and louder Hannah got so horrified that she let go the reins altogether. The horse went on at his own pace, and coming to the corner where we turn round to drop down the hill to Lower Longpuddle he turned too quick, the off-wheels went up the bank, the wagon rose sideways till it was quite on edge upon the near axles, and out rolled the three maidens into the road in a heap.
When Tony came up, frightened and breathless, he was relieved enough to see that neither of his darlings was hurt, beyond a few scratches from the brambles of the hedge. But he was rather alarmed when he heard how they were going on at one another.
"Don't ye quarrel, my dears don't ye!" says he, taking off his hat out of respect to 'em. And then he would have kissed them all round, as fair and square as a man could, but they were in too much of a taking to let him, and screeched and sobbed till they was quite spent.
"Now, I'll speak out honest, because I ought to," says Tony, as soon as he could get heard. "And this is the truth, says he: "I've asked Hannah to be mine, and she is willing, and we are going to put up the banns next "
Tony had not noticed that Hannah's father was coming up behind, nor had he noticed that Hannah's face was beginning to bleed from the scratch of a bramble. Hannah had seen her father, and had run to him, crying worse than ever.
"My daughter is not willing, sir," says Mr. Jolliver, hot and strong. "Be you willing, Hannah? I ask ye to have spirit enough to refuse him, if yer virtue is left to 'ee and you run no risk?"
"She's as sound as a bell for me, that I'll swear!" says Tony, flaring up. "And so's the others, come to that, though you may think it an onusual thing!"
"I have spirit, and I do refuse him!" says Hannah, partly because her father was there, and partly, too, in a tantrum because of the discovery and the scratch on her face. "Little did I think when I was so soft with him just now that I was talking to such a false deceiver!"
"What, you won't have me, Hannah?" says Tony, his jaw hanging down like a dead man's.
"Never; I would sooner marry no nobody at all!" she gasped out, though with her heart in her throat, for she would not have refused Tony if he had asked her quietly, and her father had not been there, and her face had not been scratched by the bramble. And having said that, away she walked upon her father's arm, thinking and hoping he would ask her again.
Tony didn't know what to say next. Milly was sobbing her heart out; but as his father had strongly recommended her he couldn't feel inclined that way. So he turned to Unity.
"Well will You, Unity dear, be mine?" he says.
"Take her leavings? Not I!" says Unity. "I'd scorn it!" And away walks Unity Sallet likewise, though she looked back when she'd gone some way, to see if he was following her.
So there at last were left Milly and Tony by themselves, she crying in watery streams, and Tony looking like a tree struck by lightning.
"Well, Milly," he says at last, going up to her, "it do seem as if fate had ordained that it should be you and I, or nobody. And what must be must be I suppose. Hey, Milly?
"If you like, Tony. You didn't really mean what you said to them?"
"Not a word of it," declares Tony, bringing down his fist upon his palm.
And then he kissed her, and put the wagon to rights, and they mounted together; and their banns were put up the very next Sunday. I was not able to go to their wedding, but it was a rare party they had, by all account. Everybody in Longpuddle was there, almost; you among the rest, I think, Mr. Flaxton?' The speaker turned to the parish clerk.
'I was,' said Mr.Flaxton.
'And that party was the cause of a very curious change in some other people's affairs; I mean in Steve Hardcome's and his cousin James's.'
'Ah! the Hardcomes,' said the stranger. 'How familiar that name is to me! What of them?'
The clerk cleared his throat and began:
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