The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy
Book One. The Three Women
11 - The Dishonesty of an Honest Woman
The reddleman had left Eustacia's presence with desponding views on Thomasin's future happiness; but he was awakened to the fact that one other channel remained untried by seeing, as he followed the way to his van, the form of Mrs. Yeobright slowly walking towards the Quiet Woman. He went across to her; and could almost perceive in her anxious face that this journey of hers to Wildeve was undertaken with the same object as his own to Eustacia.
She did not conceal the fact. "Then," said the reddleman, "you may as well leave it alone, Mrs. Yeobright."
"I half think so myself," she said. "But nothing else remains to be done besides pressing the question upon him."
"I should like to say a word first," said Venn firmly. "Mr. Wildeve is not the only man who has asked Thomasin to marry him; and why should not another have a chance? Mrs. Yeobright, I should be glad to marry your niece. and would have done it any time these last two years. There, now it is out, and I have never told anybody before but herself."
Mrs. Yeobright was not demonstrative, but her eyes involuntarily glanced towards his singular though shapely figure.
"Looks are not everything," said the reddleman, noticing the glance. "There's many a calling that don't bring in so much as mine, if it comes to money; and perhaps I am not so much worse off than Wildeve. There is nobody so poor as these professional fellows who have failed; and if you shouldn't like my redness--well, I am not red by birth, you know; I only took to this business for a freak; and I might turn my hand to something else in good time."
"I am much obliged to you for your interest in my niece; but I fear there would be objections. More than that, she is devoted to this man."
"True; or I shouldn't have done what I have this morning."
"Otherwise there would be no pain in the case, and you would not see me going to his house now. What was Thomasin's answer when you told her of your feelings?"
"She wrote that you would object to me; and other things."
"She was in a measure right. You must not take this unkindly--I merely state it as a truth. You have been good to her, and we do not forget it. But as she was unwilling on her own account to be your wife, that settles the point without my wishes being concerned."
"Yes. But there is a difference between then and now, ma'am. She is distressed now, and I have thought that if you were to talk to her about me, and think favourably of me yourself, there might be a chance of winning her round, and getting her quite independent of this Wildeve's backward and forward play, and his not knowing whether he'll have her or no."
Mrs. Yeobright shook her head. "Thomasin thinks, and I think with her, that she ought to be Wildeve's wife, if she means to appear before the world without a slur upon her name. If they marry soon, everybody will believe that an accident did really prevent the wedding. If not, it may cast a shade upon her character--at any rate make her ridiculous. In short, if it is anyhow possible they must marry now."
"I thought that till half an hour ago. But, after all, why should her going off with him to Anglebury for a few hours do her any harm? Anybody who knows how pure she is will feel any such thought to be quite unjust. I have been trying this morning to help on this marriage with Wildeve--yes, I, ma'am--in the belief that I ought to do it, because she was so wrapped up in him. But I much question if I was right, after all. However, nothing came of it. And now I offer myself."
Mrs. Yeobright appeared disinclined to enter further into the question. "I fear I must go on," she said. "I do not see that anything else can be done."
And she went on. But though this conversation did not divert Thomasin's aunt from her purposed interview with Wildeve, it made a considerable difference in her mode of conducting that interview. She thanked God for the weapon which the reddleman had put into her hands.
Wildeve was at home when she reached the inn. He showed her silently into the parlour, and closed the door. Mrs. Yeobright began--
"I have thought it my duty to call today. A new proposal has been made to me, which has rather astonished me. It will affect Thomasin greatly; and I have decided that it should at least be mentioned to you."
"Yes? What is it?" he said civilly.
"It is, of course, in reference to her future. You may not be aware that another man has shown himself anxious to marry Thomasin. Now, though I have not encouraged him yet, I cannot conscientiously refuse him a chance any longer. I don't wish to be short with you; but I must be fair to him and to her."
"Who is the man?" said Wildeve with surprise.
"One who has been in love with her longer than she has with you. He proposed to her two years ago. At that time she refused him."
"He has seen her lately, and has asked me for permission to pay his addresses to her. She may not refuse him twice."
"What is his name?"
Mrs. Yeobright declined to say. "He is a man Thomasin likes," she added, "and one whose constancy she respects at least. It seems to me that what she refused then she would be glad to get now. She is much annoyed at her awkward position."
"She never once told me of this old lover."
"The gentlest women are not such fools as to show every card."
"Well, if she wants him I suppose she must have him."
"It is easy enough to say that; but you don't see the difficulty. He wants her much more than she wants him; and before I can encourage anything of the sort I must have a clear understanding from you that you will not interfere to injure an arrangement which I promote in the belief that it is for the best. Suppose, when they are engaged, and everything is smoothly arranged for their marriage, that you should step between them and renew your suit? You might not win her back, but you might cause much unhappiness."
"Of course I should do no such thing," said Wildeve "But they are not engaged yet. How do you know that Thomasin would accept him?"
"That's a question I have carefully put to myself; and upon the whole the probabilities are in favour of her accepting him in time. I flatter myself that I have some influence over her. She is pliable, and I can be strong in my recommendations of him."
"And in your disparagement of me at the same time."
"Well, you may depend upon my not praising you," she said drily. "And if this seems like manoeuvring, you must remember that her position is peculiar, and that she has been hardly used. I shall also be helped in making the match by her own desire to escape from the humiliation of her present state; and a woman's pride in these cases will lead her a very great way. A little managing may be required to bring her round; but I am equal to that, provided that you agree to the one thing indispensable; that is, to make a distinct declaration that she is to think no more of you as a possible husband. That will pique her into accepting him."
"I can hardly say that just now, Mrs. Yeobright. It is so sudden."
"And so my whole plan is interfered with! It is very inconvenient that you refuse to help my family even to the small extent of saying distinctly you will have nothing to do with us."
Wildeve reflected uncomfortably. "I confess I was not prepared for this," he said. "Of course I'll give her up if you wish, if it is necessary. But I thought I might be her husband."
"We have heard that before."
"Now, Mrs. Yeobright, don't let us disagree. Give me a fair time. I don't want to stand in the way of any better chance she may have; only I wish you had let me know earlier. I will write to you or call in a day or two. Will that suffice?"
"Yes," she replied, "provided you promise not to communicate with Thomasin without my knowledge."
"I promise that," he said. And the interview then terminated, Mrs. Yeobright returning homeward as she had come.
By far the greatest effect of her simple strategy on that day was, as often happens, in a quarter quite outside her view when arranging it. In the first place, her visit sent Wildeve the same evening after dark to Eustacia's house at Mistover.
At this hour the lonely dwelling was closely blinded and shuttered from the chill and darkness without. Wildeve's clandestine plan with her was to take a little gravel in his hand and hold it to the crevice at the top of the window shutter, which was on the outside, so that it should fall with a gentle rustle, resembling that of a mouse, between shutter and glass. This precaution in attracting her attention was to avoid arousing the suspicions of her grandfather.
The soft words, "I hear; wait for me," in Eustacia's voice from within told him that she was alone.
He waited in his customary manner by walking round the enclosure and idling by the pool, for Wildeve was never asked into the house by his proud though condescending mistress. She showed no sign of coming out in a hurry. The time wore on, and he began to grow impatient. In the course of twenty minutes she appeared from round the corner, and advanced as if merely taking an airing.
"You would not have kept me so long had you known what I come about," he said with bitterness. "Still, you are worth waiting for."
"What has happened?" said Eustacia. "I did not know you were in trouble. I too am gloomy enough."
"I am not in trouble," said he. "It is merely that affairs have come to a head, and I must take a clear course."
"What course is that?" she asked with attentive interest.
"And can you forget so soon what I proposed to you the other night? Why, take you from this place, and carry you away with me abroad."
"I have not forgotten. But why have you come so unexpectedly to repeat the question, when you only promised to come next Saturday? I thought I was to have plenty of time to consider."
"Yes, but the situation is different now."
"Explain to me."
"I don't want to explain, for I may pain you."
"But I must know the reason of this hurry."
"It is simply my ardour, dear Eustacia. Everything is smooth now."
"Then why are you so ruffled?"
"I am not aware of it. All is as it should be. Mrs. Yeobright--but she is nothing to us."
"Ah, I knew she had something to do with it! Come, I don't like reserve."
"No--she has nothing. She only says she wishes me to give up Thomasin because another man is anxious to marry her. The woman, now she no longer needs me, actually shows off!" Wildeve's vexation has escaped him in spite of himself.
Eustacia was silent a long while. "You are in the awkward position of an official who is no longer wanted," she said in a changed tone.
"It seems so. But I have not yet seen Thomasin."
"And that irritates you. Don't deny it, Damon. You are actually nettled by this slight from an unexpected quarter."
"And you come to get me because you cannot get her. This is certainly a new position altogether. I am to be a stop-gap."
"Please remember that I proposed the same thing the other day."
Eustacia again remained in a sort of stupefied silence. What curious feeling was this coming over her? Was it really possible that her interest in Wildeve had been so entirely the result of antagonism that the glory and the dream departed from the man with the first sound that he was no longer coveted by her rival? She was, then, secure of him at last. Thomasin no longer required him. What a humiliating victory! He loved her best, she thought; and yet--dared she to murmur such treacherous criticism ever so softly?--what was the man worth whom a woman inferior to herself did not value? The sentiment which lurks more or less in all animate nature--that of not desiring the undesired of others--was lively as a passion in the supersubtle, epicurean heart of Eustacia. Her social superiority over him, which hitherto had scarcely ever impressed her, became unpleasantly insistent, and for the first time she felt that she had stooped in loving him.
"Well, darling, you agree?" said Wildeve.
"If it could be London, or even Budmouth, instead of America," she murmured languidly. "Well, I will think. It is too great a thing for me to decide offhand. I wish I hated the heath less--or loved you more."
"You can be painfully frank. You loved me a month ago warmly enough to go anywhere with me."
"And you loved Thomasin."
"Yes, perhaps that was where the reason lay," he returned, with almost a sneer. "I don't hate her now."
"Exactly. The only thing is that you can no longer get her."
"Come--no taunts, Eustacia, or we shall quarrel. If you don't agree to go with me, and agree shortly, I shall go by myself."
"Or try Thomasin again. Damon, how strange it seems that you could have married her or me indifferently, and only have come to me because I am--cheapest! Yes, yes--it is true. There was a time when I should have exclaimed against a man of that sort, and been quite wild; but it is all past now."
"Will you go, dearest? Come secretly with me to Bristol, marry me, and turn our backs upon this dog-hole of England for ever? Say Yes."
"I want to get away from here at almost any cost," she said with weariness, "but I don't like to go with you. Give me more time to decide."
"I have already," said Wildeve. "Well, I give you one more week."
"A little longer, so that I may tell you decisively. I have to consider so many things. Fancy Thomasin being anxious to get rid of you! I cannot forget it."
"Never mind that. Say Monday week. I will be here precisely at this time."
"Let it be at Rainbarrow," said she. "This is too near home; my grandfather may be walking out."
"Thank you, dear. On Monday week at this time I will be at the Barrow. Till then good-bye."
"Good-bye. No, no, you must not touch me now. Shaking hands is enough till I have made up my mind."
Eustacia watched his shadowy form till it had disappeared. She placed her hand to her forehead and breathed heavily; and then her rich, romantic lips parted under that homely impulse--a yawn. She was immediately angry at having betrayed even to herself the possible evanescence of her passion for him. She could not admit at once that she might have overestimated Wildeve, for to perceive his mediocrity now was to admit her own great folly heretofore. And the discovery that she was the owner of a disposition so purely that of the dog in the manger had something in it which at first made her ashamed.
The fruit of Mrs. Yeobright's diplomacy was indeed remarkable, though not as yet of the kind she had anticipated. It had appreciably influenced Wildeve, but it was influencing Eustacia far more. Her lover was no longer to her an exciting man whom many women strove for, and herself could only retain by striving with them. He was a superfluity.
She went indoors in that peculiar state of misery which is not exactly grief, and which especially attends the dawnings of reason in the latter days of an ill-judged, transient love. To be conscious that the end of the dream is approaching, and yet has not absolutely come, is one of the most wearisome as well as the most curious stages along the course between the beginning of a passion and its end.
Her grandfather had returned, and was busily engaged in pouring some gallons of newly arrived rum into the square bottles of his square cellaret. Whenever these home supplies were exhausted he would go to the Quiet Woman, and, standing with his back to the fire, grog in hand, tell remarkable stories of how he had lived seven years under the waterline of his ship, and other naval wonders, to the natives, who hoped too earnestly for a treat of ale from the teller to exhibit any doubts of his truth.
He had been there this evening. "I suppose you have heard the Egdon news, Eustacia?" he said, without looking up from the bottles. "The men have been talking about it at the Woman as if it were of national importance."
"I have heard none," she said.
"Young Clym Yeobright, as they call him, is coming home next week to spend Christmas with his mother. He is a fine fellow by this time, it seems. I suppose you remember him?"
"I never saw him in my life."
"Ah, true; he left before you came here. I well remember him as a promising boy."
"Where has he been living all these years?"
"In that rookery of pomp and vanity, Paris, I believe."