'The Waiting Supper' by Thomas Hardy

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I Whoever had perceived the yeoman standing on Squire Everard’s lawn in thedusk of that October evening fifty years ago, might have said at first sight that he wasloitering there from idle curiosity.For a large five-light window of the manor-house infront of him was unshuttered and uncurtained, so that the illuminated room within couldbe scanned almost to its four corners.Obviously nobody was ever expected to be inthis part of the grounds after nightfall. The apartment thus swept by an eye from without was occupied by two persons;they were sitting over dessert, the tablecloth having been removed in the old-fashionedway.The fruits were local, consisting of apples, pears, nuts, and such other products ofthe summer as might be presumed to grow on the estate.There was strong ale andrum on the table, and but little wine.Moreover, the appointments of the dining-roomwere simple and homely even for the date, betokening a countrified household of thesmaller gentry, without much wealth or ambition -- formerly a numerous class, but now ingreat part ousted by the territorial landlords. One of the two sitters was a young lady in white muslin, who listened somewhatimpatiently to the remarks of her companion, an elderly, rubicund personage, whom themerest stranger could have pronounced to be her father.The watcher evinced no signsof moving, and it became evident that affairs were not so simple as they first hadseemed.The tall farmer was in fact no accidental spectator, and he stood bypremeditation close to the trunk of a tree, so that had any traveller passed along theroad without the park gate, or even round the lawn to the door, that person would scarcehave noticed the other, notwithstanding that the gate was quite near at hand, and thepark little larger than a paddock.There was still light enough in the western heaven tobrighten faintly one side of the man’s face, and to show against the trunk of the treebehind the admirable cut of his profile; also to reveal that the front of the manor-house,small though it seemed, was solidly built of stone in that never-to-be surpassed style forthe English country residence -- the mullioned and transomed Elizabethan. The lawn, although neglected, was still as level as a bowling green -- whichindeed it might once have served for; and the blades of grass before the window wereraked by the candle-shine, which stretched over them so far as to touch the yeoman’sface in front. Within the dining-room there were also, with one of the twain, the same signs of ahidden purpose that marked the farmer.The young lady’s mind was straying as clearlyinto the shadows as that of the loiterer was fixed upon the room -- nay, it could be saidthat she was quite conscious of his presence outside.Impatience caused her foot tobeat silently on the carpet, and she more than once rose to leave the table.Thisproceeding was checked by her father, who would put his hand upon her shoulder andunceremoniously press her down into her chair, till he should have concluded hisobservations.Her replies were brief enough, and there was factitiousness in her smilesof assent to his views.A small iron casement between two of the mullions was open,and some occasional words of the dialogue were audible without. ‘As for drains -- how can I put in drains?The pipes don’t cost much, that’s true;but the labour in sinking the trenches is ruination.And then the gates -- they should behung to stone posts, otherwise there’s no keeping them up through harvest.’ TheSquire’s voice was strongly toned with the local accent, so that he said ‘drains’ and‘geats’ like the rustics on his estate. The landscape without grew darker, and the young man’s figure seemed to beabsorbed into the trunk of the tree.The small stars filled in between the larger, thenebulae between the small stars, the trees quite lost their voice; and if there was still asound, it was from the cascade of a stream which stretched along under the trees thatbounded the lawn on its northern side. At last the young girl did get to her feet and secure her retreat.‘I have somethingto do, papa,’ she said.I shall not be in the drawing-room just yet.’ ‘Very well,’ replied he.‘Then I won’t hurry.’ And closing the door behind her, hedrew his decanters together and settled down in his chair. Three minutes after that a woman’s shape emerged from the drawing roomwindow, and passing through a wall-door to the entrance front, came across the grass. She kept well clear of the dining-room window, but enough of its light fell on her to show,escaping from the dark-hooded cloak that she wore, stray verges of the same light dresswhich had figured but recently at the dinner-table.The hood was contracted tight abouther face with a drawing-string, making her countenance small and baby-like, and loveliereven than before. Without hesitation she brushed across the grass to the tree under which theyoung man stood concealed.The moment she had reached him he enclosed her formwith his arm.The meeting and embrace, though by no means formal, were yet notpassionate; the whole proceeding was that of persons who had repeated the act sooften as to be unconscious of its performance.She turned within his arm, and faced inthe same direction with himself, which was towards the window; and thus they stoodwithout speaking, the back of her head leaning against his shoulder.For a while eachseemed to be thinking his and her diverse thoughts. ‘You have kept me waiting a long time, dear Christine,’ he said at last.‘I wantedto speak to you particularly, or I should not have stayed.How came you to be dining atthis time o’ night?’ ‘Father has been out all day, and dinner was put back till six.I know I have keptyou; but Nicholas, how can I help it sometimes, if I am not to run any risk?My poorfather insists upon my listening to all he has to say; since my brother left he has hadnobody else to listen to him; and tonight he was particularly tedious on his usual topics --draining, and tenant-farmers, and the village people.I must take daddy to London; hegets so narrow always staying here.’ ‘And what did you say to it all?’ ‘Well, I took the part of the tenant-farmers, of course, as the beloved of oneshould in duty do.’There followed a little break or gasp, implying a strangled sigh. ‘You are sorry you have encouraged that beloving one?’ ‘O no, Nicholas ... What is it you want to see me for particularly?’ ‘I know you are sorry, as time goes on, and everything is at a dead-lock, with noprospect of change, and your rural swain loses his freshness!Only think, this secretunderstanding between us has lasted near three year, ever since you was a little oversixteen.’‘Yes; it has been a long time.’ ‘And I an untamed, uncultivated man, who has never seen London, and knowsnothing about society at all.’ ‘Not uncultivated, dear Nicholas.Untravelled, socially unpractised, if you will,’she said, smiling.Well, I did sigh; but not because I regret being your promised one. What I do sometimes regret is that the scheme, which my meetings with you are but apart of, has not been carried out completely.You said, Nicholas, that if I consented toswear to keep faith with you, you would away and travel, and see nations, and peoples,and cities, and take a professor with you, and study books and art, simultaneously withyour study of men and manners; and then come back at the end of two years, when Ishould find that my father would by no means be indisposed to accept you as ason-in-law.You said your reason for wishing to get my promise before starting was thatyour mind would then be more at rest when you were far away, and so could give itselfmore completely to knowledge than if you went as my unaccepted lover only, fumingwith anxiety as to how I should be when you came back.I saw how reasonable thatwas; and solemnly swore myself to you in consequence.But instead of going to see theworld you stay on and on here to see me.’ ‘And you don’t want me to see you?’ ‘Yes -- no -- it is not that.It is that I have latterly felt frightened at what I am doingwhen not in your actual presence.It seems so wicked not to tell my father that I have alover close at hand, within touch and view of both of us; whereas if you were absent myconduct would not seem quite so treacherous.The realities would not stare at one so. You would be a pleasant dream to me, which I should be free to indulge in withoutreproach of my conscience; I should live in hopeful expectation of your returning fullyqualified to boldly claim me of my father.There, I have been terribly frank, I know.’ He in his turn had lapsed into gloomy breathings now.‘I did plan it as you state,’he answered.‘I did mean to go away the moment I had your promise.But, dearChristine, I did not foresee two or three things.I did not know what a lot of pain it wouldcost to tear myself from you.And I did not know that my stingy uncle -- heaven forgiveme calling him so! -- would so flatly refuse to advance me money for my purpose -- thescheme of travelling with a first-rate tutor costing a formidable sum o’ money.You haveno idea what it would cost!’ ‘But I have said that I’ll find the money.’ ‘Ah, there,’ he returned, ‘you have hit a sore place.To speak truly, dear, I wouldrather stay unpolished a hundred years than take your money.’ ‘But why?Men continually use the money of the women they marry.’ ‘Yes; but not till afterwards.No man would like to touch your money at present,and I should feel very mean if I were to do so in present circumstances.That brings meto what I was going to propose.But no -- upon the whole I will not propose it now.’ ‘Ah!I would guarantee expenses, and you won’t let me!The money is mypersonal possession: it comes to me from my late grandfather, and not from my father atall.’ He laughed forcedly and pressed her hand.‘There are more reasons why Icannot tear myself away,’ he added.‘What would become of my uncle’s farming?Sixhundred acres in this parish, and five hundred in the next -- a constant traipsing fromone farm to the other; he can’t be in two places at once.Still, that might be got over if itwere not for the other matters.Besides, dear, I still should be a little uneasy, eventhough I have your promise, lest somebody should snap you up away from me.’ ‘Ah, you should have thought of that before.Otherwise I have committed myselffor nothing.’ ‘I should have thought of it,’ he answered gravely.But I did not.There lies myfault, I admit it freely.Ah, if you would only commit yourself a little more, I might at leastget over that difficulty!But I won’t ask you.You have no idea how much you are to mestill; you could not argue so coolly if you had.What property belongs to you I hate thevery sound of; it is you I care for.I wish you hadn’t a farthing in the world but what Icould earn for you!’ ‘I don’t altogether wish that,’ she murmured. ‘I wish it, because it would have made what I was going to propose much easierto do than it is now.Indeed I will not propose it, although I came on purpose, after whatyou have said in your frankness.’'Nonsense, Nic.Come, tell me.How can you be so touchy ?‘ ‘Look at this then, Christine dear.’ He drew from his breast-pocket a sheet ofpaper and unfolded it, when it was observable that a seal dangled from the bottom. ‘What is it?’ She held the paper sideways, so that what there was of window-lightfell on its surface.‘I can only read the Old English letters -- why -- our names!Surely itis not a marriage-licence ?’‘It is.’ She trembled.‘O Nic! how could you do this -- and without telling me!’ ‘Why should I have thought I must tell you?You had not spoken "frankly" then asyou have now.We have been all to each other more than these two years, and Ithought I would propose that we marry privately, and that I then leave you on the instant. I would have taken my travelling-bag to church, and you would have gone home alone. lshould not have started on my adventures in the brilliant manner of our original plan, butshould have roughed it a little at first; my great gain would have been that the absolutepossession of you would have enabled me to work with spirit and purpose, such asnothing else could do.But I dare not ask you now -- so frank as you have been.’ She did not answer.The document he had produced gave such unexpectedsubstantiality to the venture with which she had so long toyed as a vague dream merely,that she was, in truth, frightened a little.I -- don’t know about it!’ she said. ‘Perhaps not.Ah, my little lady, you are wearying of me!’ ‘No, Nic,’ responded she, creeping closer.'I am not.Upon my word, and truth,and honour, I am not, Nic.’ ‘A mere tiller of the soil, as I should be called,’ he continued, without heeding her. ‘And you -- well, a daughter of one of the -- I won’t say oldest families, because that’sabsurd, all families are the same age --of the longest chronicled families about here,whose name is actually the name of the place.’ ‘That’s not much, I am sorry to say!My poor brother -- but I won’t speak of that. .. . Well,’ -- she murmured mischievously, after a pause, ‘you certainly would not need tobe uneasy if I were to do this that you want me to do.You would have me safe enoughin your trap then; I couldn’t get away!’ ‘That’s just it!’ he said vehemently.‘It is a trap -- you feel it so, and that thoughyou wouldn’t be able to get away from me you might particularly wish to!Ah, if I hadasked you two years ago you would have agreed instantly.But I thought I was bound towait for the proposal to come from you as the superior!‘ ‘Now you are angry, and take seriously what I meant purely in fun.You don’tknow me even yet!To show you that you have not been mistaken in me, I do proposeto carry out this licence.I’ll marry you, dear Nicholas, tomorrow morning.’ ‘Ah, Christine!I am afraid I have stung you on to this, so that I cannot -- ' ‘No, no, no!’ she hastily rejoined; and there was something in her tone whichsuggested that she had been put upon her mettle and would not flinch.'Take me whilst Iam in the humour.What church is the licence for?’ ‘That I’ve not looked to see -- why our parish church here, of course.Ah, then wecannot use it!We dare not be married here.’ ‘We do dare,’ said she.‘And we will too, if you’ll be there.’ ‘If I’ll be there!’ They speedily came to an agreement that he should be in the church-porch at tenminutes to eight on the following morning, awaiting her; and that, immediately after theconclusion of the service which would make them one, Nicholas should set out on hislong-deferred educational tour, towards the cost of which she was resolving to bring asubstantial subscription with her to church.Then, slipping from him, she went indoorsby the way she had come, and Nicholas bent his steps homewards.
II Instead of leaving the spot by the gate, he flung himself over the fence, andpursued a direction towards the river under the trees.And it was now, in his lonelyprogress, that he showed for the first time outwardly that he was not altogether unworthyof her.He wore long water-boots reaching above his knees, and, instead of making acircuit to find a bridge by which he might cross the Froom -- the river aforesaid -- hemade straight for the point whence proceeded the low roar that was at this hour the onlyevidence of the stream’s existence.He speedily stood on the verge of the waterfallwhich caused the noise, and stepping into the water at the top of the fall, waded throughwith the sure tread of one who knew every inch of his footing, even though the canopyof trees rendered the darkness almost absolute, and a false step would haveprecipitated him into the pool beneath.Soon reaching the boundary of the grounds, hecontinued in the same direct line to traverse the alluvial valley, full of brooks andtributaries to the main stream -- in former times quite impassable, and impassable inwinter now.Sometimes he would cross a deep gully on a plank not wider than the hand;at another time he ploughed his way through beds of spear-grass, where at a few feet tothe right or left he might have been sucked down into a morass.At last he reached firmland on the other side of this watery tract, and came to his house on the rise behind --Elsenford -- an ordinary farmstead, from the back of which rose indistinct breathings,belchings, and snortings, the rattle of halters, and other familiar features of anagriculturist’s home. While Nicholas Long was packing his bag in an upper room of this dwelling, MissChristine Everard sat at a desk in her own chamber at Froom-Everard manor-house,looking with pale fixed countenance at the candles. ‘I ought -- I must now!‘ she whispered to herself.I should not have begun it if Ihad not meant to carry it through!It runs in the blood of us, I suppose.’ She alluded to afact unknown to her lover, the clandestine marriage of an aunt under circumstancessomewhat similar to the present.In a few minutes she had penned the following note:
October I3, I83-DEAR MR.BEALAND -- Can you make it convenient to yourself to meet me at theChurch tomorrow morning at eight?I name the early hour because it would suit mebetter than later on in the day.You will find me in the chancel, if you can come.Ananswer yes or no by the bearer of this will be sufficient.CHRISTINE EVERARD.
She sent the note to the rector immediately, waiting at a small side-door of thehouse till she heard the servant’s footsteps returning along the lane, when she wentround and met him in the passage.The rector had taken the trouble to write a line, andanswered that he would meet her with pleasure. A dripping fog which ushered in the next morning was highly favourable to thescheme of the pair.At that time of the century Froom-Everard House had not beenaltered and enlarged; the public lane passed close under its walls; and there was a dooropening directly from one of the old parlours -- the south parlour, as it was called -- intothe lane which led to the village.Christine came out this way, and after following thelane for a short distance entered upon a path within a belt of plantation, by which thechurch could be reached privately.She even avoided the churchyard gate, walkingalong to a place where the turf without the low wall rose into a mound, enabling her tomount upon the coping and spring down inside.She crossed the wet graves, and soglided round to the door.He was there, with his bag in his hand.He kissed her with asort of surprise, as if he had expected that at the last moment her heart would fail her. Though it had not failed her, there was, nevertheless, no great ardour inChristine’s bearing -- merely the momentum of an antecedent impulse.They went upthe aisle together, the bottle-green glass of the old lead quarries admitting but little lightat that hour, and under such an atmosphere.They stood by the altar-rail in silence,Christine’s skirt visibly quivering at each beat of her heart. Presently a quick step ground upon the gravel, and Mr. Bealand came round bythe front.He was a quiet bachelor, courteous towards Christine, and not at firstrecognizing in Nicholas a neighboring yeoman (for he lived aloofly in the next parish),advanced to her without revealing any surprise at her unusual request.But in truth hewas surprised, the keen interest taken by many country young women at the presentday in church decoration festivals being then unknown. ‘Good morning,’ he said; and repeated the same words to Nicholas moremechanically. ‘Good morning,’ she replied gravely.‘Mr. Bealand, I have a serious reason forasking you to meet me -- us, I may say.We wish you to marry us.’ The rector’s gaze hardened to fixity, rather between than upon either of them,and he neither moved nor replied for some time.‘Ah!’ he said at last. ‘And we are quite ready.’ ‘I had no idea -- ‘ ‘It has been kept rather private,’ she said calmly. ‘Where are your witnesses?’ They are outside in the meadow, sir.I can call them in a moment,’ said Nicholas. ‘Oh -- I see it is -- Mr. Nicholas Long‘ said Mr. Bealand, and turning again toChristine, ‘Does your father know of this?’ ‘Is it necessary that I should answer that question, Mr. Bealand?’ ‘I am afraid it is -- highly necessary.’Christine began to look concerned. ‘Where is the licence?’ the rector asked ‘since there have been no banns.’ Nicholas produced it, Mr. Bealand read it, an operation which occupied himseveral minutes -- or at least he made it appear so; till Christine said impatiently,‘Weare quite ready, Mr. Bealand.Will you proceed?Mr. Long has to take a journey of agreat many miles today.’ ‘And you?’ ‘No.I remain.’ Mr. Bealand assumed firmness.'There is something wrong in this,’ he said.‘Icannot marry you without your father’s presence.’ ‘But have you a right to refuse us?’ interposed Nicholas.‘I believe we are in aposition to demand your fulfilment of our request.’ ‘No, you are not!Is Miss Everard of age?I think not.I think she is months frombeing so.Eh, Miss Everard?’ ‘Am I bound to tell that?’ ‘Certainly.At any rate you are bound to write it.Meanwhile I refuse to solemnizethe service.And let me entreat you two young people to do nothing so rash as this,even if by going to some strange church, you may do so without discovery.The tragedyof marriage -- ‘ ‘Tragedy?’ ‘Certainly.It is full of crises and catastrophes, and ends with the death of one ofthe actors.The tragedy of marriage, as I was saying, is one I shall not be a party to yourbeginning with such light hearts, and I shall feel bound to put your father on his guard,Miss Everard.Think better of it, I entreat you!Remember the proverb, “Marry in hasteand repent at leisure."’ Christine, spurred by opposition, almost stormed at him.Nicholas implored; butnothing would turn that obstinate rector.She sat down and reflected.By-and-by sheconfronted Mr. Bealand. ‘Our marriage is not to be this morning, I see,’ she said.‘Now grant me onefavour, and in return I’ll promise you to do nothing rashly.Do not tell my father a word ofwhat has happened here.’‘I agree -- if you undertake not to elope.’She looked at Nicholas, and he looked at her.‘Do you wish me to elope, Nic?’she asked. ‘No,’ he said. So the compact was made, and they left the church singly, Nicholas remaining tillthe last, and closing the door.On his way home, carrying the well-packed bag whichwas just now to go no further, the two men who were mending water-carriers in themeadows approached the hedge, as if they had been on the alert all the time. ‘You said you mid want us for zummat sir?’‘All right -- never mind,’ he answered through the hedge.‘I did not require youafter all.’III
At a manor not far away there lived a queer and primitive couple who had latelybeen blessed with a son and heir.The christening took place during the week undernotice, and this had been followed by a feast to the parishioners.Christine’s father, oneof the same generation and kind, had been asked to drive over and assist in theentertainment, and Christine, as a matter of course, accompanied him. When they reached Athelhall, as the house was called, they found the usuallyquiet nook a lively spectacle.Tables had been spread in the apartment which lent itsname to the whole building -- the hall proper -- covered with a fine open-timbered roof,whose braces, purlins, and rafters made a brown thicket of oak overhead.Heretenantry of all ages sat with their wives and families, and the servants were assisted intheir ministrations by the sons and daughters of the owner’s friends and neighbours. Christine lent a hand among the rest. She was holding a plate in each hand towards a huge brown platter of bakedrice-pudding, from which a footman was scooping a large spoonful, when a voicereached her ear over her shoulder: ‘Allow me to hold them for you.’ Christine turned, and recognized in the speaker the nephew of the entertainer, ayoung man from London, whom she had already met on two or three occasions.Sheaccepted the proffered help, and from that moment, whenever he passed her in theirmarchings to and fro during the remainder of the serving, he smiled acquaintance. When their work was done, he improved the few words into a conversation.He plainlyhad been attracted by her fairness. Bellston was a self-assured young man, not particularly good-looking, with morecolour in his skin than even Nicholas had.He had flushed a little in attracting her notice,though the flush had nothing of nervousness in it -- the air with which it wasaccompanied making it curiously suggestive of a flush of anger and even when helaughed it was difficult to banish that fancy.The late autumn sunlight streamed in through the window panes upon the beadsand shoulders of the venerable patriarchs of the hamlet, and upon the middle-aged, andupon the young; upon men and women who had played out, or were to play, tragedies ortragicomedies in that nook of civilization not less great, essentially, than those which,enacted on more central arenas, fix the attention of the world.One of the party was acousin of Nicholas Long’s, who sat with her husband and children. To make himself as locally harmonious as possible, Mr. Bellston remarked to hiscompanion on the scene -- ‘It does one’s heart good,’ he said, ‘to see these simple peasants enjoyingthemselves.’ ‘O Mr. Bellston!’ exclaimed Christine; ‘don’t be too sure about that word "simple"!You little think what they see and meditate!Their reasonings and emotions are ascomplicated as ours.’ She spoke with a vehemence which would have been hardly present in her wordsbut for her own relation to Nicholas.The sense of that produced in her a namelessdepression thenceforward.The young man, however, still followed her up. ‘I am glad to hear you say it,’ he returned warmly. I was merely attuning myself toyour mood, as I thought.The real truth is that I know more of the Parthians, and Medes,and dwellers in Mesopotamia -- almost of any people, indeed -- than of the Englishrustics.Travel and exploration are my profession, not the study of the British peasantry.’ Travel.There was sufficient coincidence between his declaration and the courseshe had urged upon her lover, to lend Bellston’s account of himself a certain interest inChristine’s ears.He might perhaps be able to tell her something that would be useful toNicholas, if their dream were carried out.A door opened from the hall into the garden,and she somehow found herself outside, chatting with Mr. Bellston on this topic, till shethought that upon the whole she liked the young man.The garden being his uncle’s, hetook her round it with an air of proprietorship; and they went on amongst the Michaelmasdaisies and chrysanthemums, and through a door to the fruit-garden.A green-housewas open, and he went in and cut her a bunch of grapes. ‘How daring of you!They are your uncle’s.’ ‘O,he won’t mind -- I do anything here.A rough old buffer, isn’t he?’ She was thinking of her Nic, and felt that, by comparison with her presentacquaintance, the farmer more than held his own as a fine and intelligent fellow; but theharmony with her own existence in little things, which she found here, imparted an alientinge to Nicholas just now.The latter, idealized by moonlight, or a thousand miles ofdistance, was altogether a more romantic object for a woman’s dream than this smartnew-lacquered man; but in the sun of afternoon, and amid a surrounding company, Mr.Bellston was a very tolerable companion. When they re-entered the hall, Bellston entreated her to come with him up aspiral stair in the thickness of the wall, leading to a passage and gallery whence theycould look down upon the scene below.The people had finished their feast, thenewly-christened baby had been exhibited, and a few words having been spoken tothem they began, amid a racketing of forms, to make for the greensward without,Nicholas’s cousin and cousin’s wife and cousin’s children among the rest.While theywere filing out, a voice was heard calling -- ‘Hullo! -- here, Jim; where are you?’ said Bellston’s uncle.The young mandescended, Christine following at leisure. ‘Now will ye be a good fellow,' the Squire continued, 'and set them going outsidein some dance or other that they know?I’m dog-tired, and I want to have a few wordswith Mr. Everard before we join ‘em -- hey, Everard?They are shy till somebody starts‘em; afterwards they’ll keep gwine brisk enough.’'Ay, that they wool,’ said Squire Everard. They followed to the lawn; and here it proved that James Bellston was as shy, orrather as averse, as any of the tenantry themselves, to acting the part of fugleman. Only the parish people had been at the feast, but outlying neighbours had now strolled infor a dance. ‘They want "Speed the Plough,"’ said Bellston, coming up breathless.‘It must bea country dance, I suppose?Now, Miss Everard, do have pity upon me.I am supposedto lead off; but really I know no more about speeding the plough than a child just born! Would you take one of the villagers? -- just to start them, my uncle says.Suppose youtake that handsome young farmer over there -- I don’t know his name, but I dare say youdo -- and I’ll come on with one of the dairyman’s daughters as a second couple.’Christine turned in the direction signified, and changed colour -- though in theshade nobody noticed it.'Oh, yes -- I know him,’ she said coolly.‘He is from near ourown place -- Mr.Nicholas Long.’ ‘That’s capital -- then you can easily make him stand as first couple with you. Now I must pick up mine.’ ‘I -- I think I’ll dance with you, Mr. Bellston,’ she said with some trepidation. ‘Because, you see,' she explained eagerly, ‘I know the figure and you don’t -- so that Ican help you; while Nicholas Long, I know, is familiar with the figure, and that will maketwo couples who know it -- which is necessary, at least.’ Bellston showed his gratification by one of his angry-pleasant flushes -- he hadhardly dared to ask for what she proffered freely; and having requested Nicholas to takethe dairyman’s daughter, led Christine to her place, Long promptly stepping up secondwith his charge.There were grim silent depths in Nic’s character; a small deedy spark inhis eye, as it caught Christine’s, was all that showed his consciousness of her.Then thefiddlers began -- the celebrated Mellstock fiddlers who, given free stripping, could playfrom sunset to dawn without turning a hair.The couples wheeled and swung, Nicholastaking Christine’s hand in the course of business with the figure, when she waited forhim to give it a little squeeze; but he did not. Christine had the greatest difficulty in steering her partner through the maze, onaccount of his self-will, and when at last they reached the bottom of the long line, shewas breathless with her hard labour.Resting here, she watched Nic and his lady; and,though she had decidedly cooled off in these later months, began to admire him anew. Nobody knew these dances like him, after all, or could do anything of this sort so well. His performance with the dairyman’s daughter so won upon her, that when 'Speed thePlough’ was over she contrived to speak to him. ‘Nic, you are to dance with me next time.’ He said he would, and presently asked her in a formal public manner, lifting hishat gallantly.She showed a little backwardness, which he quite understood, andallowed him to lead her to the top, a row of enormous length appearing below them as ifby a magic as soon as they had taken their places.Truly the Squire was right when hesaid that they only wanted starting. ‘What is it to be?’ whispered Nicholas. She turned to the band.‘The Honeymoon,’ she said. And then they trod the delightful last-century measure of that name, which if ithad ever been danced better, was never danced with more zest.The perfectresponsiveness which their tender acquaintance threw into the motions of Nicholas andhis partner lent to their gyrations the fine adjustment of two interacting parts of a singlemachine.The excitement of the movement carried Christine back to the time -- theunreflecting passionate time, about two years before -- when she and Nic had beenincipient lovers only; and it made her forget the carking anxieties, the vision of socialbreakers ahead, that had begun to take the gilding off her position now.Nicholas, on hispart, had never ceased to be a lover; no personal worries had as yet made himconscious of any staleness, flatness, or unprofitableness in his admiration of Christine. ‘Not quite so wildly, Nic,’ she whispered.‘I don’t object personally; but they’llnotice us.How came you here?’ ‘I heard that you had driven over; and I set out -- on purpose for this.’ ‘What -- you have walked?’ ‘Yes.If I had waited for one of uncle’s horses I should have been too late.’ ‘Five miles here and five back -- ten miles on foot -- merely to dance!’ ‘With you.What made you think of this old "Honeymoon" thing?’ ‘O! it came into my head when I saw you, as what would have been a reality withus if you had not been stupid about that licence, and had got it for a distant church.’ ‘Shall we try again?’ ‘No -- I don’t know.I’ll think it over.’ The villagers admired their grace and skill, as the dancers themselves perceived;but they did not know what accompanied that admiration in one spot, at least. ‘People who wonder they can foot it so featly together should know what someothers think,’ a waterman was saying to his neighbour.‘Then their wonder would beless.’ His comrade asked for information. ‘Well -- really I hardly believe it -- but ‘tis said they be man and wife.Yes, sure --went to church and did the job a’most afore ‘twas light one morning.But mind, not aword of this; for ‘twould be the loss of a winter’s work to me if I had spread such a reportand it were not true.’ When the dance had ended she rejoined her own section of the company.Herfather and Mr. Bellston the elder had now come out from the house, and were smokingin the background.Presently she found that her father was at her elbow. ‘Christine, don’t dance too often with young Long -- as a mere matter ofprudence, I mean, as volk might think it odd, he being one of our own neighbouringfarmers.I should not mention this to ‘ee if he were an ordinary young fellow; but beingsuperior to the rest it behoves you to be careful.’ ‘Exactly, papa,’ said Christine. But the revived sense that she was deceiving him threw a damp over her spirits. ‘But, after all,’ she said to herself, ‘he is a young man of Elsenford, handsome, able, andthe soul of honour; and I am a young woman of the adjoining parish, who have beenconstantly thrown into communication with him.Is it not, by nature’s rule, the mostproper thing in the world that I should marry him, and is it not an absurd conventionalregulation which says that such a union would be wrong?’ It may be concluded that the strength of Christine’s large-minded argument wasrather an evidence of weakness than of strength in the passion it concerned, which hadrequired neither argument nor reasoning of any kind for its maintenance when full andflush in its early days.
When driving home in the dark with her father she sank into pensive silence. She was thinking of Nicholas having to trudge on foot all those miles back after hisexertions on the sward.Mr. Everard, arousing himself from a nap, said suddenly, ‘Ihave something to mention to ‘ee, by George -- so I have, Chris!You probably knowwhat it is?’ She expressed ignorance, wondering if her father had discovered anything of hersecret. ‘Well, according to him you know it.But I will tell ‘ee. Perhaps you noticed youngJim Bellston walking me off down the lawn with him? -- whether or no, we walkedtogether a good while; and he informed me that he wanted to pay his addresses to ‘ee.Inaturally said that it depended upon yourself; and he replied that you were willingenough; you had given him particular encouragement -- showing your preference for himby specially choosing him for your partner -- hey?"In that case," says I, "go on andconquer -- settle it with her -- I have no objection." The poor fellow was very grateful,and in short, there we left the matter.He’ll propose tomorrow.’ She saw now to her dismay what James Bellston had read as encouragement. ‘He has mistaken me altogether,’ she said.‘I had no idea of such a thing.’'What, you won’t have him?’ ‘Indeed, I cannot!’ ‘Chrissy,’ said Mr. Everard with emphasis, ‘there’s noobody whom I should so likeyou to marry as that young man.He’s a thoroughly clever fellow, and fairly well providedfor.He’s travelled all over the temperate zone; but he says that directly he marries he’sgoing to give up all that, and be a regular stay-at-home.You would be nowhere saferthan in his hands.’ ‘It is true,’ she answered.‘He is a highly desirable match, and I should be wellprovided for, and probably very safe in his hands.’ ‘Then don’t be skittish, and stand-to.’ She had spoken from her conscience and understanding, and not to please herfather.As a reflecting woman she believed that such a marriage would be a wise one. In great things Nicholas was closest to her nature; in little things Bellston seemedimmeasurably nearer than Nic; and life was made up of little things. Altogether the firmament looked black for Nicholas Long, notwithstanding herhalf-hour’s ardour for him when she saw him dancing with the dairyman’s daughter. Most great passions, movements, and beliefs -- individual and national -- burst duringtheir decline into a temporary irradiation, which rivals their original splendour; and thenthey speedily become extinct.Perhaps the dance had given the last flare-up toChristine’s love.It seemed to have improvidently consumed for its immediate purposeall her ardour forwards, so that for the future there was nothing left but frigidity. Nicholas had certainly been very foolish about that licence!
IV This laxity of emotional tone was further increased by an incident, when, two dayslater, she kept an appointment with Nicholas in the Sallows.The Sallows was anextension of shrubberies and plantations along the banks of the Froom, accessible fromthe lawn of Froom-Everard House only, except by wading through the river at thewaterfall or elsewhere.Near the brink was a thicket of box in which a trunk layprostrate; this had been once or twice their trysting-place, though it was by no means asafe one; and it was here she sat awaiting him now The noise of the stream muffled any sound of footsteps, and it was before shewas aware of his approach that she looked up and saw him wading across at the top ofthe waterfall. Noontide lights and dwarfed shadows always banished the romantic aspect of herlove for Nicholas.Moreover, something new had occurred to disturb her; and if ever shehad regretted giving way to a tenderness for him -- which perhaps she had not done withany distinctness -- she regretted it now.Yet in the bottom of their hearts those two wereexcellently paired, the very twin halves of a perfect whole; and their love was pure.Butat this hour surfaces showed garishly, and obscured the depths.Probably her regretappeared in her face. He walked up to her without speaking, the water running from his boots; and,taking one of her hands in each of his own, looked narrowly into her eyes. ‘Have you thought it over?’ ‘What?’ ‘Whether we shall try again; you remember saying you would at the dance?’ ‘Oh, I had forgotten that!’ ‘You are sorry we tried at all!’ he said accusingly. ‘I am not so sorry for the fact as for the rumours,' she said. ‘Ah! rumours?’ ‘They say we are already married.’ ‘Who?’ ‘I cannot tell exactly.I heard some whispering to that effect.Somebody in thevillage told one of the servants, I believe.This man said that he was crossing thechurchyard early on that unfortunate foggy morning, and heard voices in the chancel,and peeped through the window as well as the dim panes would let him; and there hesaw you and me and Mr. Bealand, and so on; but thinking his surmises would bedangerous knowledge, he hastened on.And so the story got afloat.Then your aunt,too -- ‘ ‘Good Lord! -- what has she done?’ ‘The story was told her, and she said proudly, "O yes, it is true enough.I haveseen the licence.But it is not to be known yet."’ ‘Seen the licence?How the -- ‘ ‘Accidentally, I believe, when your coat was hanging somewhere.’ The information, coupled with the infelicitious word ‘proudly,’ caused Nicholas toflush with mortification.He knew that it was in his aunt’s nature to make a brag of thatsort; but worse than the brag was the fact that this was the first occasion on whichChristine had deigned to show her consciousness that such a marriage would be asource of pride to his relatives -- the only two he had in the world. ‘You are sorry, then, even to be thought my wife, much less to be it.’ He droppedher hand, which fell lifelessly. ‘It is not sorry exactly, dear Nic.But I feel uncomfortable and vexed, that afterscrewing up my courage, my fidelity, to the point of going to church, you should have somuddled -- managed the matter that it has ended in neither one thing nor the other. How can I meet acquaintances, when I don’t know what they are thinking of me ?’ ‘Then, dear Christine, let us mend the muddle.I’ll go away for a few days and getanother licence, and you can come to me.’ She shrank from this perceptibly.‘I cannot screw myself up to it a second time,she said.I am sure I cannot!Besides, I promised Mr. Bealand.And yet how can Icontinue to see you after such a rumour?We shall be watched now, for certain.’ ‘Then don’t see me.’ ‘I fear I must not for the present.Altogether -- ‘ ‘What?’ ‘I am very depressed.’ These views were not very inspiriting to Nicholas, as he construed them.It mayindeed have been possible that he construed them wrongly, and should have insistedupon her making the rumour true.Unfortunately, too, he had come to her in a hurrythrough brambles and briars, water and weed, and the shaggy wildness which hungabout his appearance at this fine and correct time of day lent an impracticability to thelook of him. ‘You blame me -- you repent your courses -- you repent that you ever, everowned anything to me!‘No, Nicholas, I do not repent that,’ she returned gently, though with firmness. ‘But I think that you ought not to have got that licence without asking me first; and I alsothink that you ought to have known how it would be if you lived on here in your presentposition, and made no effort to better it.I can bear whatever comes, for social ruin isnot personal ruin or even personal disgrace.But as a sensible, new risen poet says,whom I have been reading this morning: --The world and its ways have a certain worth:And to press a point while these opposeWere simple policy.Better wait. As soon as you had got my promise, Nic, you should have gone away -- yes --and made a name, and come back to claim me.That was my silly girlish dream aboutmy hero.’ ‘Perhaps I can do as much yet!And would you have indeed liked better to liveaway from me for family reasons, than to run a risk in seeing me for affection’s sake? Owhat a cold heart it has grown!If I had been a prince, and you a dairymaid, I’d havestood by you in the face of the world!’ She shook her head.‘Ah -- you don’t know what society is -- you don’t know.’ ‘Perhaps not.Who was that strange gentleman of about seven-and-twenty I sawat Mr. Bellston’s christening feast?’ ‘Oh -- that was his nephew James.Now he is a man who has seen an unusualextent of the world for his age.He is a great traveller, you know.’‘Indeed.’ ‘In fact an explorer.He is very entertaining.’ ‘No doubt.’ Nicholas received no shock of jealousy from her announcement.He knew her sowell that he could see she was not in the least in love with Bellston.But he asked ifBellston were going to continue his explorations. ‘Not if he settles in life.Otherwise he will, I suppose.’ ‘Perhaps I could be a great explorer, too, if I tried.’ ‘You could, I am sure.’ They sat apart, and not together; each looking afar off at vague objects, and notin each other’s eyes.Thus the sad autumn afternoon waned, while the waterfall hissedsarcastically of the inevitableness of the unpleasant.Very different this from the timewhen they had first met there. The nook was most picturesque; but it looked horridly common and stupid now. Their sentiment had set a colour hardly less visible than a material one on surroundingobjects, as sentiment must where life is but thought.Nicholas was as devoted as everto the fair Christine; but unhappily he too had moods and humours, and the divisionbetween them was not closed. She had no sooner got indoors and sat down to her work-table than her fatherentered the drawing-room.She handed him his newspaper; he took it without a word,went and stood on the hearth-rug, and flung the paper on the floor. ‘Christine, what’s the meaning of this terrible story?I was just on my way to lookat the register.’ She looked at him without speech. ‘You have married -- Nicholas Long?’ ‘No, father.’ ‘No? Can you say no in the face of such facts as I have been put in possessionof?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘But -- the note you wrote to the rector -- and the going to church?’ She briefly explained that their attempt had failed. ‘Ah!Then this is what that dancing meant, was it? By --, it makes me --.Howlong has this been going on, may I ask?’ ‘This what?’ ‘What, indeed!Why, making him your beau.Now listen to me.All’s well thatends well; from this day, madam, this moment, he is to be nothing more to you.You arenot to see him.Cut him adrift instantly!I only wish his volk were on my farm -- out theyshould go, or I would know the reason why.However, you are to write him a letter tothis effect at once.’ ‘How can I cut him adrift?’ ‘Why not?You must, my good maid!’ ‘Well, though I have not actually married him, I have solemnly sworn to be hiswife when he comes home from abroad to claim me.It would be gross perjury not tofulfil my promise.Besides, no woman can go to church with a man to deliberatelysolemnize matrimony, and refuse him afterwards, if he does nothing wrong meanwhile.’ The uttered sound of her strong conviction seemed to kindle in Christine a livelierperception of all its bearings than she had known while it had lain unformulated in hermind.For when she had done speaking she fell down on her knees before her father,covered her face, and said, Please, please forgive me, papa!How could I do it withoutletting you know!I don’t know, I don’t know!’ When she looked up she found that, in the turmoil of his mind, her father wasmoving about the room.You are within an ace of ruining yourself, ruining me, ruining usall!’ he said.‘You are nearly as bad as your brother, begad!’ ‘Perhaps I am -- yes -- perhaps I am!’ ‘That I should father such a harum-scarum brood!’ ‘It is very bad; but Nicholas -- ‘ ‘He’s a scoundrel!’ ‘He is not a scoundrel!’ cried she, turning quickly.He’s as good and worthy asyou or I, or anybody bearing our name, or any nobleman in the kingdom, if you come tothat!Only -- only’ -- she could not continue the argument on those lines.‘Now, father,listen!’ she sobbed: ‘if you taunt me I’ll go off and join him at his farm this very day, andmarry him tomorrow, that’s what I’ll do!’ ‘I don’t taant ye!’ ‘I wish to avoid unseemliness as much as you.’She went away.When she came back a quarter of an hour later, thinking to findthe room empty, he was standing there as before, never having apparently moved.Hismanner had quite changed.He seemed to take a resigned and entirely different view ofcircumstances. ‘Christine, here’s a paragraph in the paper hinting at a secret wedding, and I’mblazed if it don’t point to you.Well, since this was to happen, I’ll bear it, and notcomplain.All volk have crosses, and this is one of mine.Well, this is what I’ve got tosay -- I feel that you must carry out this attempt at marrying Nicholas Long.Faith, youmust!The rumour will become a scandal if you don’t -- that’s my view.I have tried tolook at the brightest side of the case.Nicholas Long is a young man superior to most ofhis class, and fairly presentable.And he’s not poor -- at least his uncle is not.I believethe old muddler could buy me up any day.However, a farmer’s wife you must be, as faras I can see.As you’ve made your bed, so ye must lie.Parents propose, andungrateful children dispose.You shall marry him, and immediately.’ Christine hardly knew what to make of this.‘He is quite willing to wait, and so amI.We can wait for two or three years, and then he will be as worthy as -- ‘ ‘You must marry him.And the sooner the better, if ‘tis to be done at all. . . . Andyet I did wish you could have been Jim Bellston’s wife.I did wish it!But no.’ ‘I, too, wished it and do still, in one sense,’ she returned gently.His moderationhad won her out of her defiant mood, and she was willing to reason with him.‘You do?’ he said surprised. ‘I see that in a worldly sense my conduct with Mr. Long may be considered amistake.’ ‘H’m. -- I am glad to hear that -- after my death you may see it more clearly still;and you won’t have long to wait, to my reckoning.’ She fell into bitter repentance, and kissed him in her anguish.‘Don’t say that!’she cried.‘Tell me what to do?’ ‘If you’ll leave me for an hour or two I’ll think.Drive to the market and back -- thecarriage is at the door -- and I’ll try to collect my senses.Dinner can be put back till youreturn.’ In a few minutes she was dressed, and the carriage bore her up the hill whichdivided the village and manor from the market-town.
A quarter of an hour brought her into the High Street, and for want of a moreimportant errand she called at the harness-maker’s for a dog-collar that she required. It happened to be market-day, and Nicholas, having postponed the engagementswhich called him thither to keep the appointment with her in the Sallows, rushed off atthe end of the afternoon to attend to them as well as he could.Arriving thus in a greathurry on account of the lateness of the hour, he still retained the wild, amphibiousappearance which had marked him when he came up from the meadows to her side --an exceptional condition of things which had scarcely ever before occurred.When shecrossed the pavement from the shop door, the shopman bowing and escorting her to thecarriage, Nicholas chanced to be standing at the road-waggon office, talking to themaster of the waggons.There were a good many people about, and those near pausedand looked at her transit, in the full stroke of the level October sun, which went underthe brims of their hats, and pierced through their button-holes.From the group sheheard murmured the words: ‘Mrs. Nicholas Long.’ The unexpected remark, not without distinct satire in its tone, took her so greatlyby surprise that she was confounded.Nicholas was by this time nearer, though comingagainst the sun he had not yet perceived her.Influenced by her father’s lecture, she feltangry with him for being there and causing this awkwardness.Her notice of him wastherefore slight, supercilious perhaps, slurred over; and her vexation at his presenceshowed distinctly in her face as she sat down in her seat.Instead of catching his waitingeye, she positively turned her head away. A moment after she was sorry she had treated him so; but he was gone. Reaching home she found on her dressing-table a note from her father.Thestatement was brief: “I have considered and am of the same opinion.You must marry him.He canleave home at once and travel as proposed.I have written to him to this effect.I don’twant any victuals, so don’t wait dinner for me.” Nicholas was the wrong kind of man to be blind to his Christine’s mortification,though he did not know its entire cause.He had lately foreseen something of this sortas possible. ‘It serves me right,’ he thought, as he trotted homeward.‘It was absurd -- wickedof me to lead her on so. The sacrifice would have been too great -- too cruel!’ And yet,though he thus took her part, he flushed with indignation every time he said to himself,‘She is ashamed of me!’ On the ridge which overlooked Froom-Everard he met a neighbour of his -- astock-dealer -- in his gig, and they drew rein and exchanged a few words.A part of thedealer’s conversation had much meaning for Nicholas. ‘I’ve had occasion to call on Squire Everard,’ the former said ; ‘but he couldn’t seeme on account of being quite knocked up at some bad news he has heard.’ Nicholas rode on past Froom-Everard to Elsenford Farm, pondering.He had newand startling, matter for thought as soon as he got there.The Squire’s note had arrived. At first he could not credit its import; then he saw further, took in the tone of the letter,saw the writer’s contempt behind the words, and understood that the letter was writtenas by a man hemmed into a corner Christine was defiantly -- insultingly -- hurled at hishead.He was accepted because he was so despised.And yet with what respect he had treated her and hers!Now he was reminded ofwhat an agricultural friend had said years ago, seeing the eyes of Nicholas fixed onChristine as on an angel when she passed: ‘Better a little fire to warm ‘ee than a greatone to burn ‘ee.No good can come of throwing your heart there.’ He went into themead, sat down, and asked himself four questions:1.How could she live near her acquaintance as his wife, even in his absence, withoutsuffering martyrdom from the stings of their contempt?2.Would not this entail total estrangement between Christine and her family also, andher own consequent misery?3.Must not such isolation extinguish her affection for him?4.Supposing that her father rigged them out as colonists and sent them off to America,was not the effect of such exile upon one of her gentle nurture likely to be as the last? In short, whatever they should embark in together would be cruelty to her, and hisdeath would be a relief.It would, indeed, in one aspect be a relief to her now, if shewere so ashamed of him as she had appeared to be that day.Were he dead, this littleepisode with him would fade away like a dream. Mr. Everard was a good-hearted man at bottom, but to take his enraged offerseriously was impossible.Obviously it was hotly made in his first bitterness at what hehad heard.The least thing that he could do would be to go away and never trouble hermore.To travel and learn and come back in two years, as mapped out in their firstsanguine scheme, required a staunch heart on her side, if the necessary expenditure oftime and money were to be afterwards justified; and it were folly to calculate on thatwhen he had seen today that her heart was failing her already.To travel and disappearand not be heard of for many years would be a far more independent stroke, and itwould leave her entirely unfettered.Perhaps he might rival in this kind the accomplishedMr. Bellston, of whose journeyings he had heard so much. He sat and sat, and the fog rose out of the river, enveloping him like a fleece; firsthis feet and knees, then his arms and body, and finally submerging his head.When hehad come to a decision he went up again into the homestead.He would beindependent, if he died for it, and he would free Christine.Exile was the only course. The first step was to inform his uncle of his determination. Two days later Nicholas was on the same spot in the mead, at almost the samehour of eve.But there was no fog now; a blusterous autumn wind had ousted the still,golden days and misty nights; and he was going, full of purpose, in the oppositedirection.When he had last entered the mead he was an inhabitant of the Froom valley;in forty-eight hours he had severed himself from that spot as completely as if he hadnever belonged to it.All that appertained to him in the Froom valley now wascircumscribed by the portmanteau in his hand. In making his preparations for departure he had unconsciously held a faint,foolish hope that she would communicate with him and make up their estrangement insome soft womanly way.But she had given no signal, and it was too evident to him thather latest mood had grown to be her fixed one, proving how well-founded had been hisimpulse to set her free. He entered the Sallows, found his way in the dark to the garden-door of thehouse, slipped under it a note to tell her of his departure, and explaining its true reasonto be a consciousness of her growing feeling that he was an encumbrance and ahumiliation.Of the direction of his journey and of the date of his return he said nothing. His course now took him into the high road, which he pursued for some miles in anorth-easterly direction, still spinning the thread of sad inferences, and asking himselfwhy he should ever return.At daybreak he stood on the hill above Shottsford-Forum,and awaited a coach which passed about this time along that highway towardsMelchester and London.
VI Some fifteen years after the date of the foregoing incidents, a man who had dweltin far countries, and viewed many cities, arrived at Roy-Town, a roadside hamlet on theold western turnpike road, not five miles from Froom-Everard, and put up at the Buck’sHead, an isolated inn at that spot.He was still barely of middle age, but it could be seenthat a haze of grey was settling upon the locks of his hair, and that his face had lostcolour and curve, as if by exposure to bleaching climates and strange atmospheres, orfrom ailments incidental thereto.He seemed to observe little around him, by reason ofthe intrusion of his musings upon the scene.In truth Nicholas Long was just now thecreature of old hopes and fears consequent upon his arrival -- this man who once hadnot cared if his name were blotted out from that district.The evening light showedwistful lines which he could not smooth away by the worldling’s gloss of nonchalancethat he had learnt to fling over his face. The Buck’s Head was a somewhat unusual place for a man of this sort to chooseas a house of sojourn in preference to some Casterbridge inn four miles further on. Before he left home it had been a lively old tavern at which High-flyers, and Heralds, andTally-hoes had changed horses on their stages up and down the country; but now thehouse was rather cavernous and chilly, the stable-roofs were hollow-backed, thelandlord was asthmatic, and the traffic gone. He arrived in the afternoon, and when he had sent back the fly and was having anondescript meal, he put a question to the waiting-maid with a mien of indifference. ‘Squire Everard, of Froom-Everard Manor, has been dead some years, I believe?’ She replied in the affirmative. ‘And are any of the family left there still?’ ‘O no, bless you, sir!They sold the place years ago -- Squire Everard’s son did --and went away.I’ve never heard where they went to.They came quite to nothing.’ ‘Never heard anything of the young lady -- the Squire’s daughter?’ ‘No. You see ‘twas before I came to these parts.’When the waitress left the room, Nicholas pushed aside his plate and gazed outof the window.He was not going over into the Froom Valley altogether on Christine’saccount, but she had greatly animated his motive in coming that way.Anyhow he wouldpush on there now that he was so near, and not ask questions here where he was liableto be wrongly informed.The fundamental inquiry he had not ventured to make --whether Christine had married before the family went away.He had abstained becauseof an absurd dread of extinguishing hopeful surmise.That the Everards had left their oldhome was bad enough intelligence for one day. Rising from the table he put on his hat and went out, ascending towards theupland which divided this district from his native vale.The first familiar feature that methis eye was a little spot on the distant sky -- a clump of trees standing on a barrow whichsurmounted a yet more remote upland -- a point where, in his childhood, he had believedpeople could stand and see America.He reached the further verge of the plateau onwhich he had entered.Ah, there was the valley -- a greenish-grey stretch of colour --still looking placid and serene, as though it had not much missed him.If Christine wasno longer there, why should he pause over it this evening? His uncle and aunt weredead, and tomorrow would be soon enough to inquire for remoter relatives.Thus,disinclined to go further, he turned to retrace his way to the inn. In the backward path he now perceived the figure of a woman, who had beenwalking at a distance behind him; and as she drew nearer he began to be startled. Surely, despite the variations introduced into that figure by changing years, itsground-lines were those of Christine? Nicholas had been sentimental enough to write to Christine immediately onlanding at Southampton a day or two before this, addressing his letter at a venture to theold house, and merely telling her that he planned to reach the Roy-Town inn on thepresent afternoon.The news of the scattering of the Everards had dissipated his hopeof hearing of her; but here she was. So they met -- there, alone, on the open down by a pond, just as if the meetinghad been carefully arranged. She threw up her veil.She was still beautiful, though the years had touched her;a little more matronly -- much more homely.Or was it only that he was much lesshomely now -- a man of the world -- the sense of homeliness being relative? Her facehad grown to be pre-eminently of the sort that would be called interesting.Herhabiliments were of a demure and sober cast, though she was one who had used todress so airily and so gaily.Years had laid on a few shadows too in this. ‘I received your letter,’ she said, when the momentary embarrassment of their firstapproach had passed.‘And I thought I would walk across the hills today, as it was fine. I have just called at the inn, and they told me you were out.I was now on my wayhomeward.’ He hardly listened to this, though he intently gazed at her.‘Christine,’ he said,‘one word.Are you free?’ ‘I -- I am in a certain sense,’ she replied, colouring. The announcement had a magical effect.The intervening time between past andpresent closed up for him, and moved by an impulse which he had combated for fifteenyears, he seized her two hands and drew her towards him. She started back, and became almost a mere acquaintance.‘I have to tell you,’she gasped, that I have -- been married.’ Nicholas’s rose-coloured dream was immediately toned down to a greyish tinge. ‘I did not marry till many years after you had left,’ she continued in the humbletones of one confessing to a crime.‘Oh Nic,’ she cried reproachfully, ‘how could youstay away so long?’ ‘Whom did you marry?’ ‘Mr.Bellston.’ ‘I -- ought to have expected it.’ He was going to add, ‘And is he dead?’ but hechecked himself.Her dress unmistakably suggested widowhood; and she had said shewas free. ‘I must now hasten home,’ said she.‘I felt that, considering my shortcomings atour parting so many years ago, I owed you the initiative now.’ ‘There is some of your old generosity in that.I’ll walk with you, if I may.Whereare you living, Christine?’ ‘In the same house, but not on the old conditions.I have part of it on lease; thefarmer now tenanting the premises found the whole more than he wanted, and theowner allowed me to keep what rooms I chose.I am poor now, you know, Nicholas, andalmost friendless.My brother sold the Froom-Everard estate when it came to him, andthe person who bought it turned our home into a farm-house.Till my father’s death myhusband and I lived in the manor-house with him, so that I have never lived away fromthe spot. She was poor.That, and the change of name, sufficiently accounted for theinn-servant’s ignorance of her continued existence within the walls of her old home. It was growing dusk, and he still walked with her.A woman’s head arose fromthe declivity before them, and as she drew nearer, Christine asked him to go back.‘Thisis the wife of the farmer who shares the house,’ she said.‘She is accustomed to comeout and meet me whenever I walk far and am benighted.I am obliged to walkeverywhere now.’ The farmer’s wife, seeing that Christine was not alone, paused in her advance,and Nicholas said, ‘Dear Christine, if you are obliged to do these things, I am not, andwhat wealth I can command you may command likewise.They say rolling stones gatherno moss; but they gather dross sometimes.I was one of the pioneers to the gold-fields,you know, and made a sufficient fortune there for my wants.What is more, I kept it. When I had done this I was coming home, but hearing of my uncle’s death I changed myplan, travelled, speculated, and increased my fortune.Now, before we part: youremember you stood with me at the altar once, and therefore I speak with lesspreparation than I should otherwise use.Before we part then I ask, shall another againintrude between us? Or, shall we complete the union we began?’ She trembled -- just as she had done at that very minute of standing with him inthe church, to which he had recalled her mind.‘I will not enter into that now, dearNicholas,’ she replied.‘There will be more to talk of and consider first -- more to explain,which it would have spoiled this meeting to have entered into now.’ ‘Yes, yes; but -- ‘ ‘Further than the brief answer I first gave, Nic, don’t press me tonight.I still havethe old affection for you, or I should not have sought you.Let that suffice for themoment.’ ‘Very well, dear one.And when shall I call to see you?’ ‘I will write and fix an hour.I will tell you everything of my history then.’ And thus they parted, Nicholas feeling that he had not come here fruitlessly. When she and her companion were out of sight he retraced his steps to Roy-Town,where he made himself as comfortable as he could in the deserted old inn of hisboyhood’s days.He missed her companionship this evening more than he had done atany time during the whole fifteen years; and it was as though instead of separation therehad been constant communion with her throughout that period.The tones of her voicehad stirred his heart in a nook which had lain stagnant ever since he last heard them. They recalled the woman to whom he had once lifted his eyes as to a goddess.Herannouncement that she had been another’s came as a little shock to him, and he did notnow lift his eyes to her in precisely the same way as he had lifted them at first.But heforgave her for marrying Bellston; what could he expect after fifteen years? He slept at Roy-Town that night, and in the morning there was a short note fromher, repeating more emphatically her statement of the previous evening -- that shewished to inform him clearly of her circumstances, and to calmly consider with him theposition in which she was placed.Would he call upon her on Sunday afternoon, whenshe was sure to be alone? ’Nic,’ she wrote on, ‘what a cosmopolite you are!I expected to find my oldyeoman still; but I was quite awed in the presence of such a citizen of the world.Did Iseem rusty and unpractised?Ah -- you seemed so once to me!’ Tender playful words; the old Christine was in them.She said Sunday afternoon,and it was now only Saturday morning.He wished she had said today; that short revivalof her image had vitalized to sudden heat feelings that had almost been stilled. Whatever she might have to explain as to her position -- and it was awkwardlynarrowed, no doubt -- he could not give her up.Miss Everard or Mrs. Bellston, whatmattered it? -- she was the same Christine. He did not go outside the inn all Saturday.He had no wish to see or do anythingbut to await the coming interview.So he smoked, and read the local newspaper of theprevious week, and stowed himself in the chimney-corner.In the evening he felt that hecould remain indoors no longer, and the moon being near the full, he started from the innon foot in the same direction as that of yesterday, with the view of contemplating the oldvillage and its precincts, and hovering round her house under the cloak of night. With a stout stick in his hand he climbed over the five miles of upland in acomparatively short space of time.Nicholas had seen many strange lands and troddenmany strange ways since he last walked that path, but as he trudged he seemedwonderfully like his old self, and had not the slightest difficulty in finding the way.Indescending to the meads the streams perplexed him a little, some of the old foot-bridgeshaving been removed; but he ultimately got across the larger, water-courses, andpushed on to the village, avoiding her residence for the moment, lest she shouldencounter him, and think he had not respected the time of her appointment. He found his way to the churchyard, and first ascertained where lay the tworelations he had left alive at his departure; then he observed the gravestones of otherinhabitants with whom he had been well acquainted, till by degrees he seemed to be inthe society of all the elder Froom-Everard population, as he had known the place.Sideby side as they had lived in his day here were they now.They had moved house inmass. But no tomb of Mr. Bellston was visible, though, as he had lived at themanor-house, it would have been natural to find it here.In truth Nicholas was moreanxious to discover that than anything being curious to know how long he had beendead.Seeing from the glimmer of a light in the church that somebody was therecleaning for Sunday he entered, and looked round upon the wails as well as he could. But there was no monument to her husband, though one had been erected to theSquire. Nicholas addressed the young man who was sweeping.‘I don’t see anymonument or tomb to the late Mr. Bellston?’ ‘O no, sir; you won’t see that,’ said the young man drily ‘Why, pray?’ ‘Because he’s not buried here.He’s not Christian-buried anywhere, as far as weknow.In short, perhaps he’s not buried at all; and between ourselves, perhaps he’salive.’ Nicholas sank an inch shorter.‘Ah,’ he answered. ‘Then you don’t know the peculiar circumstances, sir?’ ‘I am a stranger here -- as to late years.’ ‘Mr.Bellston was a traveller -- an explorer -- it was his calling; you may haveheard his name as such?’‘I remember.’ Nicholas recalled the fact that this very bent of Mr. Bellston’s wasthe incentive to his own roaming. ‘Well, when he married he came and lived here with his wife and his wife’s father,and said be would travel no more.But after a time he got weary of biding quiet here,and weary of her -- he was not a good husband to the young lady by any means -- andhe betook himself again to his old trick of roving -- with her money.Away he went, quiteout of the realm of human foot, into the bowels of Asia, and never was heard of more. He was murdered, it is said, but nobody knows; though as that was nine years ago he’sdead enough in principle, if not in corporation.His widow lives quite humble, forbetween her husband and her brother she’s left in very lean pasturage.’ Nicholas went back to the Buck’s Head without hovering round her dwelling. Thisthen was the explanation which she had wanted to make.Not dead, but missing.Howcould he have expected that the first fair promise of happiness held out to him wouldremain untarnished?She had said that she was free; and legally she was free, nodoubt.Moreover, from her tone and manner he felt himself justified in concluding thatshe would be willing to run the risk of a union with him, in the improbability of herhusband’s existence.Even if that husband lived, his return was not a likely event, tojudge from his character.A man who could spend her money on his own personaladventures would not be anxious to disturb her poverty after such a lapse of time. Well, the prospect was not so unclouded as it had seemed.But could he, evennow, give up Christine?VII
Two months more brought the year nearly to a close, and found Nicholas Longtenant of a spacious house in the market-town nearest to Froom-Everard.A man ofmeans, genial character, and a bachelor, he was an object of great interest to hisneighbours, and to his neighbours’ wives and daughters.But he took little note of this,and had made it his business to go twice a week, no matter what the weather, to thenow farmhouse at Froom-Everard, a wing of which had been retained as the refuge ofChristine.He always walked, to give no trouble in putting up a horse to a housekeeperwhose staff was limited.The two had put their heads together on the situation, had gone to a solicitor, hadbalanced possibilities, and had resolved to make the plunge of matrimony.‘Nothingventure, nothing have,’ Christine had said, with some of her old audacity. With almost gratuitous honesty they had let their intentions be widely known. Christine, it is true, had rather shrunk from publicity at first; but Nicholas argued thattheir boldness in this respect would have good results.With his friends he held thatthere was not the slightest probability of her being other than a widow, and a challengeto the missing man now, followed by no response, would stultify any unpleasant remarkswhich might be thrown at her after their union.To this end a paragraph was inserted inthe Wessex papers, announcing that their marriage was proposed to be celebrated onsuch and such a day in December. His periodic walks along the south side of the valley to visit her were among thehappiest experiences of his life.The yellow leaves falling around him in the foreground,the well-watered meads on the left hand, and the woman he loved awaiting him at theback of the scene, promised a future of much serenity, as far as human judgment couldforesee.On arriving, he would sit with her in the ‘parlour’ of the wing she retained, hergeneral sitting-room, where the only relics of her early surroundings were an old clockfrom the other end of the house, and her own piano.Before it was quite dark they wouldstand, hand in hand, looking out of the window across the flat turf to the dark clump oftrees which hid further view from their eyes. ‘Do you wish you were still mistress here, dear?’ he once said. ‘Not at all,’ said she cheerfully.‘I have a good enough room, and a good enoughfire, and a good enough friend.Besides, my latter days as mistress of the house werenot happy ones, and they spoilt the place for me. It was a punishment for myfaithlessness.Nic, you do forgive me? Really you do?’ The twenty-third of December, the eve of the wedding-day, had arrived at last inthe train of such uneventful ones as these.Nicholas had arranged to visit her that day alittle later than usual, and see that everything was ready with her for the morrow’s eventand her removal to his house; for he had begun look after her domestic affairs, and tolighten as much as possible the duties of her housekeeping. He was to come to an early supper, which she had arranged to take the place ofa wedding-breakfast next day -- the latter not being feasible in her present situation.Anhour or so after dark the wife of the farmer who lived in the other part of the houseentered Christine’s parlour to lay the cloth. ‘What with getting the ham skinned, and the black-puddings hotted up,’ she said,‘it will take me all my time before he’s here, if I begin this minute.’ ‘I’ll lay the table myself,’ said Christine, jumping up.‘Do you attend to thecooking.’ ‘Thank you, ma’am.And perhaps ‘tis no matter, seeing that it is the last nightyou’ll have to do such work.I knew this sort of life wouldn’t last long for ‘ee, being bornto better things.’ ‘It has lasted rather long, Mrs. Wake.And if he had not found me out it wouldhave lasted all my days.’ ‘But he did find you out.’ ‘He did.And I’ll lay the cloth immediately.’Mrs. Wake went back to the kitchen, and Christine began to bustle about.Shegreatly enjoyed preparing this table for Nicholas and herself with her own hands.Shetook artistic pleasure in adjusting each article to its position, as if half-an-inch error werea point of high importance.Finally she placed the two candles where they were tostand, and sat down by the fire. Mrs. Wake re-entered and regarded the effect.‘Why not have another candle ortwo, ma’am ?’ she said."Twould make it livelier.Say four.’ ‘Very well,’ said Christine, and four candles were lighted.‘Really,’ she added,surveying them, ‘I have been now so long accustomed to little economies that they lookquite extravagant.’ ‘Ah, you’ll soon think nothing of forty in his grand new house!Shall I bring insupper directly he comes, ma’am?’ ‘No, not for half an hour; and, Mrs. Wake, you and Betsy are busy in the kitchen, Iknow; so when he knocks don’t disturb yourselves; I can let him in.’ She was again left alone, and, as it still wanted some time to Nicholas’sappointment, she stood by the fire, looking at herself in the glass over the mantel. Reflectively raising a lock of her hair just above her temple she uncovered a small scar. That scar had a history.The terrible temper of her late husband -- those sudden moodsof irascibility which had made even his friendly excitements look like anger -- had oncecaused him to set that mark upon her with the bezel of a ring he wore.He declared thatthe whole thing was an accident.She was a woman, and kept her own opinion. Christine then turned her back to the glass and scanned the table and thecandles, shining one at each corner like types of the four Evangelists, and thought theylooked too assuming -- too confident.She glanced up at the clock, which stood also inthis room, there not being space enough for it in the passage.It was nearly seven, andshe expected Nicholas at half-past.She liked the company of this venerable article inher lonely life: its tickings and whizzings were a sort of conversation.It now began tostrike the hour.At the end something grated slightly.Then, without any warning, theclock slowly inclined forward and fell at full length upon the floor. The crash brought the farmer’s wife rushing into the room.Christine hadwell-nigh sprung out of her shoes.Mrs. Wake’s enquiry what had happened wasanswered by the evidence of her own eyes. ‘How did it occur?’ she said. ‘I cannot say; it was not firmly fixed, I suppose.Dear me, how sorry I am!Mydear father’s’ hall-clock!And now I suppose it is ruined.’ Assisted by Mrs. Wake, she lifted the clock.Every inch of glass was, of course,shattered, but very little harm besides appeared to be done.They propped it uptemporarily, though it would not go again. Christine had soon recovered her composure, but she saw that Mrs. Wake wasgloomy.’What does it mean, Mrs. Wake?’ she said.’Is it ominous?’‘It is a sign of a violent death in the family.’‘Don’t talk of it.I don’t believe such things; and don’t mention it to Mr. Long whenhe comes.He’s not in the family yet, you know.’ ‘O no, it cannot refer to him,’ said Mrs. Wake musingly. ‘Some remote cousin, perhaps,’ observed Christine, no less willing to humour herthan to get rid of a shapeless dread which the incident had caused in her own mind. ‘And -- supper is almost ready, Mrs. Wake?’ ‘In three-quarters of an hour.’ Mrs. Wake left the room, and Christine sat on.Though it still wanted fifteenminutes to the hour at which Nicholas had promised to be there, she began to growimpatient.After the accustomed ticking the dead silence was oppressive.But she hadnot to wait so long as she had expected; steps were heard approaching the door, andthere was a knock. Christine was already there to open it.The entrance had no lamp, but it was notparticularly dark out of doors.She could see the outline of a man, and cried cheerfully, IYou are early; it is very good of you.’ ‘I beg pardon.It is not Mr. Bellston himself -- only a messenger with his bag andgreatcoat.But he will be here soon.’ The voice was not the voice of Nicholas, and the intelligence was strange. , I -- Idon’t understand.Mr. Bellston?’ she faintly replied. ‘Yes, ma’am.A gentleman -- a stranger to me -- gave me these things atCasterbridge station to bring on here, and told me to say that Mr. Bellston had arrivedthere, and is detained for half an hour, but will be here in the course of the evening.’ She sank into a chair.The porter put a small battered portmanteau on the floor,the coat on a chair, and looking into the room at the spread table said, ‘If you aredisappointed, ma’am, that your husband (as I s’pose he is) is not come, I can assure youhe’ll soon be here.He’s stopped to get a shave, to my thinking, seeing he wanted it. What he said was that I could tell you he had heard the news in Ireland, and would havecome sooner, his hand being forced; but was hindered crossing by the weather, havingtook passage in a sailing vessel.What news he meant he didn’t say.’ ‘Ah, yes, she faltered.It was plain that the man knew nothing of her intendedre-marriage. Mechanically rising and giving him a shilling she answered to his ‘good-night,’ andhe withdrew, the beat of his footsteps lessening in the distance.She was alone; but inwhat a solitude. Christine stood in the middle of the hall, just as the man had left her, in thegloomy silence of the stopped clock within the adjoining room, till she aroused herself,and turning to the portmanteau and greatcoat brought them to the light of the candles,and examined them.The portmanteau bore painted upon it the initials ‘J. B.’ in whiteletters -- the well-known initials of her husband. She examined the greatcoat.In the breast-pocket was an empty spirit flask,which she firmly fancied she recognized as the one she had filled many times for himwhen he was living at home with her. She turned desultorily hither and thither, until she heard another tread without,and there came a second knocking at the door.She did not respond to it; and Nicholas-- for it was he -- thinking that he was not heard by reason of a concentration onto-morrow’s proceedings, opened the door softly, and came on to the door of her room,which stood unclosed, just as it had been left by the Casterbridge porter. Nicholas uttered a blithe greeting, cast his eye round the parlour, which with itstall candles, blazing fire, snow-white cloth, and prettily-spread table, formed a cheerfulspectacle enough for a man who had been walking in the dark for an hour. ‘My bride -- almost, at last!’ he cried, encircling her with his arms. Instead of responding, her figure became limp, frigid, heavy; her head fell back,and he found that she had fainted. It was natural, he thought.She had had many little worrying matters to attend to,and but slight assistance.He ought to have seen more effectually to her affairs; thecloseness of the event had over-excited her.Nicholas kissed her unconscious face --more than once, little thinking what news it was that had changed its aspect.Loth to callMrs. Wake, he carried Christine to a couch and laid her down.This had the effect ofreviving her.Nicholas bent and whispered in her ear, ‘Lie quiet, dearest, no hurry; anddream, dream, dream of happy days.It is only I. You will soon be better.’ He held her bythe hand. ‘No, no, no!’ she said, with a stare.‘O, how can this be?’ Nicholas was alarmed and perplexed, but the disclosure was not long delayed. When she had sat up, and by degrees made the stunning event known to him, he stoodas if transfixed. ‘Ah -- is it so?’ said he.Then, becoming quite meek, ‘And why was he so cruel asto -- delay his return till now?’ She dutifully recited the explanation her husband had given her through themessenger; but her mechanical manner of telling it showed how much she doubted itstruth.It was too unlikely that his arrival at such a dramatic moment should not be acontrived surprise, quite of a piece with his previous dealings towards her. ‘But perhaps it may be true -- and he may have become kind now -- not as heused to be,’ she faltered.‘Yes, perhaps, Nicholas, he is an altered man -- we’ll hope heis.I suppose I ought not to have listened to my legal advisers, and assumed his deathso surely!Anyhow, I am roughly received back into -- the right way. Nicholas burst out bitterly: ‘O what too, too honest fools we were! -- to so courtdaylight upon our intention by putting that announcement in the papers!Why could wenot have married privately, and gone away, so that he would never have known whathad become of you, even if he had returned? Christine, he has done it to . . . But I’ll sayno more.Of course we -- might fly now.’ ‘No, no; we might not,’ said she hastily. ‘Very well.But this is hard to bear! "When I looked for good then evil came untome, and when I waited for light there came darkness."So once said a sorely tried manin the land of Uz, and so say I now! . . . I wonder if he is almost here at this moment?’ She told him she supposed Bellston was approaching by the path across thefields, having sent on his greatcoat, which he would not want walking. ‘And is this meal laid for him, or for me?’ ‘It was laid for you.’ ‘And it will be eaten by him?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Christine, are you sure that he is come, or have you been sleeping over the fireand dreaming it?’She pointed anew to the portmanteau with the initials ‘J. B.’, and to the coatbeside it. ‘Well, good-bye -- good-bye!Curse that parson for not marrying us fifteen yearsago!’ It is unnecessary to dwell further upon that parting.There are scenes whereinthe words spoken do not even approximate to the level of the mental communionbetween the actors.Suffice it to say that part they did, and quickly; and Nicholas, moredead than alive, went out of the house homewards. Why had he ever come back?During his absence he had not cared for Christineas he cared now.If he had been younger he might have felt tempted to descend intothe meads instead of keeping along their edge.The Froom was down there, and heknew of quiet pools in that stream to which death would come easily.But he was too oldto put an end to himself for such a reason as love; and another thought, too, kept himfrom seriously contemplating any desperate act.His affection for her was stronglyprotective, and in the event of her requiring a friend’s support in future troubles therewas none but himself left in the world to afford it.So he walked on. Meanwhile Christine had resigned herself to circumstances.A resolve tocontinue worthy of her history and of her family lent her heroism and dignity.She calledMrs. Wake, and explained to that worthy woman as much of what had occurred as shedeemed necessary.Mrs. Wake was too amazed to reply; she retreated slowly, her lipsparted; till at the door she said with a dry mouth, ‘And the beautiful supper, ma’am?’ ‘Serve it when he comes.’ ‘When Mr. Bellston -- yes, ma’am, I will.’ She still stood gazing, as if she couldhardly take in the order. ‘That will do, Mrs. Wake.I am much obliged to you for all your kindness.’ AndChristine was left alone again, and then she wept. She sat down and waited.That awful silence of the stopped clock began anew,but she did not mind it now.She was listening for a footfall in a state of mental tensitywhich almost took away from her the power of motion.It seemed to her that the naturalinterval for her husband’s journey thither must have expired; but she was not sure, andwaited on. Mrs. Wake again came in.‘You have not rung for supper -- ‘ ‘He is not yet come, Mrs. Wake.If you want to go to bed, bring in the supper andset it on the table.It will be nearly as good cold.Leave the door unbarred.’ Mrs. Wake did as was suggested, made up the fire, and went away.Shortlyafterwards Christine heard her retire to her chamber.But Christine still sat on, and stillher husband postponed his entry. She aroused herself once or twice to freshen the fire, but was ignorant how thenight was going.Her watch was upstairs, and she did not make the effort to go up toconsult it.In her seat she continued; and still the supper waited, and still he did notcome. At length she was so nearly persuaded that the arrival of his things must havebeen a dream after all, that she again went over to them, felt them, and examined them. His they unquestionably were; and their forwarding by the porter had been quite natural. She sighed and sat down again. Presently she fell into a doze, and when she again became conscious she foundthat the four candles had burned into their sockets and gone out.The fire still emitted afeeble shine.Christine did not take the trouble to get more candles, but stirred the fireand sat on. After a long period she heard a creaking of the chamber floor and stairs at theother end of the house, and knew that the farmer’s family were getting up.By-and-byMrs. Wake entered the room, candle in hand, bouncing open the door in her morningmanner, obviously without any expectation of finding a person there. ‘Lord-a-mercy!What, sitting here again, ma’am?’ ‘Yes, I am sitting here still.’ ‘You’ve been there ever since last night?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Then -- ‘ ‘He’s not come.’ ‘Well, he won’t come at this time o’ morning,’ said the farmer’s wife.‘Do ‘ee geton to bed, ma’am, You must be shrammed to death!’ It occurred to Christine now that possibly her husband had thought better ofobtruding himself upon her company within an hour of revealing his existence to her,and had decided to pay a more formal visit next day.She therefore adopted Mrs.Wake’s suggestion and retired.
Nicholas had gone straight home, neither speaking to nor seeing a soul.Fromthat hour a change seemed to come over him.He had ever possessed a full share ofself-consciousness; he had been readily piqued, had shown an unusual dread of beingpersonally obtrusive.But now his sense of self, as an individual provoking opinion,appeared to leave him.When, therefore, after a day or two of seclusion, he came forthagain, and the few acquaintances he had formed in the town condoled with him on whathad happened, and pitied his haggard looks, he did not shrink from their regard as hewould have done formerly, but took their sympathy as it would have been accepted by achild.It reached his ears that Bellston had not appeared on the evening of his arrival atany hotel in the town or neighbourhood, or entered his wife’s house at all.‘That’s a partof his cruelty,’ thought Nicholas.And when two or three days had passed, and still noaccount came to him of Bellston having joined her, he ventured to set out forFroom-Everard. Christine was so shaken that she was obliged to receive him as she lay on asofa, beside the square table which was to have borne their evening feast.She fixedher eyes wistfully upon him, and smiled a sad smile. ‘He has not come?’ said Nicholas under his breath. ‘He has not.’ Then Nicholas sat beside her, and they talked on general topics merely likesaddened old friends.But they could not keep away the subject of Bellston, their voicesdropping as it forced its way in.Christine, no less than Nicholas, knowing her husband’scharacter, inferred that, having stopped her game, as he would have phrased it, he wastaking things leisurely, and, finding nothing very attractive in her limited mode of living,was meaning to return to her only when he had nothing better to do. The bolt which laid low their hopes had struck so recently that they could hardlylook each other in the face when speaking that day.But when a week or two hadpassed, and all the horizon still remained as vacant of Bellston as before, Nicholas andshe could talk of the event with calm wonderment.Why had he come, to go again likethis? And then there set in a period of resigned surmise, during which
So like, so very like, was day to day,
that to tell of one of them is to tell of all.Nicholas would arrive between three and four inthe afternoon, a faint trepidation influencing his walk as he neared her door.He wouldknock; she would always reply in person, having watched for him from the window. Then he would whisper -- ‘He has not come?’ ‘He has not,’ she would say. Nicholas would enter then, and she being ready bonneted, they would walk intothe Sallows together as far as to the spot which they had frequently made their place ofappointment in their youthful days.A plank bridge, which Bellston had caused to bethrown over the stream during his residence with her in the manorhouse, was now againremoved, and all was just the same as in Nicholas’s time, when he had beenaccustomed to wade across on the edge of the cascade and come up to her like amerman from the deep.Here on the felled trunk, which still lay rotting in its old place,they would now sit, gazing at the descending sheet of water, with its never-endingsarcastic hiss at their baffled attempts to make themselves one flesh.Returning to thehouse they would sit down together to tea, after which, and the confidential chat thataccompanied it, he walked home by the declining light.This proceeding became asperiodic as an astronomical recurrence.Twice a week he came -- all through thatwinter, all through the spring following, through the summer, through the autumn, thenext winter, the next year, and the next, till an appreciable span of human life hadpassed by.Bellston still tarried. Years and years Nic walked that way, at this interval of three days, from hishouse in the neighbouring town; and in every instance the aforesaid order of things wascustomary; and still on his arrival the form of words went on -- ‘He has not come?’ ‘He has not.’ So they grew older.The dim shape of that third one stood continually betweenthem; they could not displace it; neither, on the other hand, could it effectually part them. They were in close communion, yet not indissolubly united; lovers, yet never growingcured of love.By the time that the fifth year of Nic’s visiting had arrived, on about thefive-hundredth occasion of his presence at her tea-table, he noticed that the bleachingprocess which had begun upon his own locks was also spreading to hers.He told herso, and they laughed.Yet she was in good health -- a condition of suspense, whichwould have half-killed a man, had been endured by her without complaint, and even withcomposure. One day, when these years of abeyance had numbered seven, they had strolledas usual as far as the waterfall, whose faint roar formed a sort of calling voice sufficientin the circumstances to direct their listlessness.Pausing there, he looked up at her faceand said, ‘Why should we not try again, Christine?We are legally at liberty to do sonow.Nothing venture, nothing have.’ But she would not.Perhaps a little primness of idea was by this time ousting thenative daring of Christine.‘What he has done once he can do twice,’ she said.‘He isnot dead, and if we were to marry he would say we had "forced his hand," as he saidbefore, and duly reappear.’ Some years after, when Christine was about fifty, and Nicholas fifty-three, a newtrouble of a minor kind arrived.He found an inconvenience in traversing the distancebetween their two houses, particularly in damp weather, the years he had spent in tryingclimates abroad having sown the seeds of rheumatism, which made a journeyundesirable on inclement days, even in a carriage.He told her of this new difficulty, ashe did of everything. ‘If you could live nearer,’ suggested she. Unluckily there was no house near.But Nicholas, though not a millionaire, was aman of means; he obtained a small piece of ground on lease at the nearest spot to, herhome that it could be so obtained, which was on the opposite brink of the Froom, thisriver forming the boundary of the Froom-Everard manor; and here he built a cottagelarge enough for his wants.This took time, and when he got into it he found its situationa great comfort to him.He was not more than five hundred yards from her now, andgained a new pleasure in feeling that all sounds which greeted his ears, in the day or inthe night, also fell upon hers -- the caw of a particular rook, the voice of a neighbouringnightingale, the whistle of a local breeze, or the purl of the fall in the meadows, whoserush was a material rendering of time’s ceaseless scour over themselves, wearing themaway without uniting them. Christine’s missing husband was taking shape as a myth among the surroundingresidents; but he was stiII believed in as corporeally imminent by Christine herself, andalso, in a milder degree, by Nicholas.For a curious unconsciousness of the long lapseof time since his revelation of himself seemed to affect the pair.There had been nopassing events to serve as chronological milestones, and the evening on which she hadkept supper waiting for him still loomed out with startling nearness in their retrospects. In the seventeenth pensive year of this their parallel march towards the commonbourne, a labourer came in a hurry one day to Nicholas’s house and brought strangetidings.The present owner of Froom-Everard -- a non-resident -- had been improvinghis property in sundry ways, and one of these was by dredging the stream which, in thecourse of years, had become choked with mud and weeds in its passage through theSallows.The process necessitated a reconstruction of the waterfall.When the riverhad been pumped dry for this purpose, the skeleton of a man had been found jammedamong the piles supporting the edge of the fall.Every particle of his flesh and clothinghad been eaten by fishes or abraded to nothing by the water, but the relics of a goldwatch remained, and on the inside of the case was engraved the name of the maker ofher husband’s watch, which she well remembered. Nicholas, deeply agitated, hastened down to the place and examined the remainsattentively, afterwards going across to Christine, and breaking the discovery to her.Shewould not come to view the skeleton, which lay extended on the grass, not a finger ortoe-bone missing, so neatly had the aquatic operators done their work.Conjecture wasdirected to the question how Bellston had got there; and conjecture alone could give anexplanation. It was supposed that, on his way to call upon her, he had taken a short cutthrough the grounds, with which he was naturally very familiar, and coming to the fallunder the trees had expected to find there the plank which, during his occupancy of thepremises with Christine and her father, he had placed there for crossing into the meadson the other side instead of wading across as Nicholas had done.Before discovering itsremoval he had probably overbalanced himself, and was thus precipitated into thecascade, the piles beneath the descending current wedging him between them like theprongs of a pitchfork, and effectually preventing the rising of his body, over which theweeds grew.Such was the reasonable supposition concerning the discovery; but proofwas never forthcoming. ‘To think,’ said Nicholas, when the remains had been decently interred, and hewas again sitting with Christine -- though not beside the waterfall -- ‘to-think how wevisited him!How we sat over him, hours and hours, gazing at him, bewailing our fate,when all the time he was ironically hissing at us from the spot, in an unknown tongue,that we could marry if we chose!’ She echoed the sentiment with a sigh. ‘I have strange fancies,’ she said.‘I suppose it must have been my husband whocame back, and not some other man.’ Nicholas felt that there was little doubt.‘Besides -- the skeleton ‘ he said. ‘Yes. . . . If it could not have been another person’s -- but no, of course it was he.’ ‘You might have married me on the day we had fixed, and there would have beenno impediment.You would now have been seventeen years my wife, and we mighthave had tall sons and daughters.’ ‘It might have been so,’ she murmured. ‘Well -- is it still better late than never?’ The question was one which had become complicated by the increasing years ofeach.Their wills were somewhat enfeebled now, their hearts sickened of tenderenterprise by hope too long deferred. Having postponed the consideration of theircourse till a year after the interment of Bellston, each seemed less disposed thanformerly to take it up again. ‘Is it worth while, after so many years?’ she said to him.‘We are fairly happy aswe are -- perhaps happier than we should be in any other relation, seeing what oldpeople we have grown.The weight is gone from our lives; the shadow no longer dividesus: then let us be joyful together as we are, dearest Nic, in the days of our vanity; and With mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come.’ He fell in with these views of hers to some extent.But occasionally he venturedto urge her to reconsider the case, though he spoke not with the fervour of his earlieryears.

Editor 1 Interpretation

The Waiting Supper by Thomas Hardy: A Study in Restraint and Melancholy

Thomas Hardy, the renowned English novelist and poet, was also a master of the short story form. His stories often explore the lives of rural folk in the nineteenth century, and are characterized by a subtle, understated style that belies their profound emotional impact. "The Waiting Supper," one of his most haunting tales, is a subtle exploration of loss, grief, and the power of memory. In this essay, I will examine the various literary elements that make "The Waiting Supper" a work of enduring beauty and significance.

Plot Summary

The story opens with an elderly woman, Sophy, preparing a supper for her son, Sam, who is due to return home from America after many years. Sophy is filled with excitement and anticipation, and spends the day cooking and cleaning, preparing her home for Sam's arrival. As night falls, Sam's wife arrives at the cottage, alone and grief-stricken. She tells Sophy that Sam has died on the journey home, and that she has brought his body with her. Sophy is devastated, but insists on keeping her promise to Sam, and prepares a supper for him as if he were still alive. The story ends with Sophy sitting alone at the table, surrounded by the trappings of the feast, waiting for her son's return.


One of the most striking features of "The Waiting Supper" is its subtle, understated characterization. Hardy gives us only the barest details about Sophy and Sam, yet through their actions and dialogue, we come to understand their personalities and relationships. Sophy is a devoted mother, who has spent years pining for her son's return. She is kind and generous, and is willing to do anything to make Sam happy. Sam, on the other hand, is portrayed as a restless, adventurous spirit, who has left his mother behind in pursuit of his dreams. His wife describes him as a man who was always "torn between two worlds," and it is clear that he never fully reconciled himself to his decision to leave home. The contrast between Sam's sense of adventure and Sophy's longing for stability and security creates a rich tension in the story, and sets the stage for its tragic conclusion.


Another important element of "The Waiting Supper" is its evocative setting. Hardy's descriptions of the cottage and its surroundings are vivid and atmospheric, and help to create a sense of place that is both familiar and mysterious. The cottage itself is described as "a low-roofed, thatched dwelling," with "a rickety porch" and "a patch of garden in front." The surrounding landscape is similarly rendered in detail, with "a clump of firs on one side, and a little stream on the other." By creating such a vivid sense of place, Hardy draws the reader into the story, and makes us feel as if we are there with Sophy, waiting for her son's return.


One of the key strengths of "The Waiting Supper" is its rich symbolism. Throughout the story, Hardy uses a variety of images and motifs to convey the themes of loss, grief, and memory. One of the most powerful symbols in the story is the supper itself. Sophy's insistence on preparing a feast for her dead son is a poignant reminder of the ways in which we cling to the past, even when it is painful to do so. The food itself, which is described in mouth-watering detail, represents both the comfort of home and the transience of life. Other symbols in the story include the firs, which stand as a metaphor for Sam's restless spirit, and the stream, which suggests the passage of time and the inevitability of change.

Tone and Style

Finally, it is worth noting the tone and style of "The Waiting Supper." Hardy's prose is spare and understated, yet deeply affecting. He avoids sentimentality and melodrama, instead relying on simple, powerful language to convey the story's emotional weight. The result is a work of great restraint and melancholy, in which the tragedy of Sophy and Sam's lives is conveyed through subtle hints and allusions. The tone of the story is one of quiet sorrow, yet it is also infused with a sense of hope and resilience. Despite the sadness of Sophy's situation, we are left with a sense that she will persevere, and that her love for her son will endure even beyond death.


In conclusion, "The Waiting Supper" is a masterful work of short fiction, characterized by its subtle characterization, evocative setting, rich symbolism, and understated tone. Hardy's simple, powerful prose conveys the tragedy and beauty of Sophy and Sam's lives, and leaves us with a sense of the enduring power of love and memory. The story is a testament to Hardy's skill as a writer, and to the enduring relevance of his work.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

The Waiting Supper: A Masterpiece of Thomas Hardy

Thomas Hardy, the renowned English novelist and poet, is known for his realistic portrayal of rural life and the complexities of human relationships. His short story, The Waiting Supper, is a masterpiece that captures the essence of his literary style. The story is set in a small village in England, and it revolves around a young couple, William and Mary, who are about to get married. The Waiting Supper is a poignant tale of love, loss, and the inevitability of fate.

The story begins with William and Mary, who are eagerly waiting for their wedding day. They are deeply in love and have been looking forward to this day for a long time. However, fate has other plans for them. On the day of their wedding, William is called away to attend to his sick mother. Mary is left alone, waiting for William to return. As the hours pass, Mary becomes increasingly anxious and worried. She prepares a sumptuous supper for William, hoping that he will return soon.

As the night wears on, Mary's anxiety turns to despair. She begins to fear the worst and imagines all sorts of terrible things happening to William. She starts to doubt his love for her and wonders if he has abandoned her. Her thoughts are interrupted by the arrival of a stranger, who informs her that William has been killed in a tragic accident.

Mary is devastated by the news. She is left alone, with no one to comfort her. She sits down to eat the supper she had prepared for William, but she cannot bring herself to eat. The food is a bitter reminder of the love and happiness that she has lost. She spends the night alone, mourning the loss of her beloved.

The Waiting Supper is a powerful story that explores the themes of love, loss, and the inevitability of fate. It is a poignant reminder of the fragility of life and the importance of cherishing the moments we have with our loved ones. The story is also a commentary on the social norms and expectations of the time. In the Victorian era, women were expected to be submissive and obedient to their husbands. Mary's despair and loneliness after William's death are a reflection of the limitations placed on women in that era.

The story is also a testament to Hardy's literary genius. His use of language and imagery is masterful, and he creates a vivid and realistic portrayal of rural life in England. The descriptions of the village and the countryside are so vivid that the reader can almost smell the fresh air and feel the warmth of the sun on their skin. Hardy's attention to detail is also evident in the descriptions of the food that Mary prepares for William. The reader can almost taste the delicious dishes that Mary has cooked.

Hardy's use of symbolism is also noteworthy. The supper that Mary prepares for William is a symbol of their love and the life they had planned together. The fact that Mary cannot bring herself to eat the food after William's death is a symbol of the emptiness and despair that she feels. The stranger who brings the news of William's death is a symbol of fate, which is often portrayed as an impersonal force that controls our lives.

In conclusion, The Waiting Supper is a masterpiece of English literature. It is a powerful and poignant story that explores the themes of love, loss, and the inevitability of fate. Hardy's use of language, imagery, and symbolism is masterful, and he creates a vivid and realistic portrayal of rural life in England. The story is a testament to Hardy's literary genius and his ability to capture the complexities of human relationships. The Waiting Supper is a must-read for anyone who appreciates great literature and wants to be moved by a powerful and poignant story.

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