The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy
Book Five. The Discovery
5 - An Old Move Inadvertently Repeated
Charley's attentions to his former mistress were unbounded. The only solace to his own trouble lay in his attempts to relieve hers. Hour after hour he considered her wants; he thought of her presence there with a sort of gratitude, and, while uttering imprecations on the cause of her unhappiness, in some measure blessed the result. Perhaps she would always remain there, he thought, and then he would be as happy as he had been before. His dread was lest she should think fit to return to Alderworth, and in that dread his eyes, with all the inquisitiveness of affection, frequently sought her face when she was not observing him, as he would have watched the head of a stockdove to learn if it contemplated flight. Having once really succoured her, and possibly preserved her from the rashest of acts, he mentally assumed in addition a guardian's responsibility for her welfare.
For this reason he busily endeavoured to provide her with pleasant distractions, bringing home curious objects which he found in the heath, such as white trumpet-shaped mosses, redheaded lichens, stone arrowheads used by the old tribes on Egdon, and faceted crystals from the hollows of flints. These he deposited on the premises in such positions that she should see them as if by accident.
A week passed, Eustacia never going out of the house. Then she walked into the enclosed plot and looked through her grandfather's spyglass, as she had been in the habit of doing before her marriage. One day she saw, at a place where the highroad crossed the distant valley, a heavily laden wagon passing along. It was piled with household furniture. She looked again and again, and recognized it to be her own. In the evening her grandfather came indoors with a rumour that Yeobright had removed that day from Alderworth to the old house at Blooms-End.
On another occasion when reconnoitring thus she beheld two female figures walking in the vale. The day was fine and clear; and the persons not being more than half a mile off she could see their every detail with the telescope. The woman walking in front carried a white bundle in her arms, from one end of which hung a long appendage of drapery; and when the walkers turned, so that the sun fell more directly upon them, Eustacia could see that the object was a baby. She called Charley, and asked him if he knew who they were, though she well guessed.
"Mrs. Wildeve and the nurse-girl," said Charley.
"The nurse is carrying the baby?" said Eustacia.
"No, 'tis Mrs. Wildeve carrying that," he answered, "and the nurse walks behind carrying nothing."
The lad was in good spirits that day, for the Fifth of November had again come round, and he was planning yet another scheme to divert her from her too absorbing thoughts. For two successive years his mistress had seemed to take pleasure in lighting a bonfire on the bank overlooking the valley; but this year she had apparently quite forgotten the day and the customary deed. He was careful not to remind her, and went on with his secret preparations for a cheerful surprise, the more zealously that he had been absent last time and unable to assist. At every vacant minute he hastened to gather furze-stumps, thorn-tree roots, and other solid materials from the adjacent slopes, hiding them from cursory view.
The evening came, and Eustacia was still seemingly unconscious of the anniversary. She had gone indoors after her survey through the glass, and had not been visible since. As soon as it was quite dark Charley began to build the bonfire, choosing precisely that spot on the bank which Eustacia had chosen at previous times.
When all the surrounding bonfires had burst into existence Charley kindled his, and arranged its fuel so that it should not require tending for some time. He then went back to the house, and lingered round the door and windows till she should by some means or other learn of his achievement and come out to witness it. But the shutters were closed, the door remained shut, and no heed whatever seemed to be taken of his performance. Not liking to call her he went back and replenished the fire, continuing to do this for more than half an hour. It was not till his stock of fuel had greatly diminished that he went to the back door and sent in to beg that Mrs. Yeobright would open the window-shutters and see the sight outside.
Eustacia, who had been sitting listlessly in the parlour, started up at the intelligence and flung open the shutters. Facing her on the bank blazed the fire, which at once sent a ruddy glare into the room where she was, and overpowered the candles.
"Well done, Charley!" said Captain Vye from the chimney-corner. "But I hope it is not my wood that he's burning....Ah, it was this time last year that I met with that man Venn, bringing home Thomasin Yeobright--to be sure it was! Well, who would have thought that girl's troubles would have ended so well? What a snipe you were in that matter, Eustacia! Has your husband written to you yet?"
"No," said Eustacia, looking vaguely through the window at the fire, which just then so much engaged her mind that she did not resent her grandfather's blunt opinion. She could see Charley's form on the bank, shovelling and stirring the fire; and there flashed upon her imagination some other form which that fire might call up.
She left the room, put on her garden bonnet and cloak, and went out. Reaching the bank, she looked over with a wild curiosity and misgiving, when Charley said to her, with a pleased sense of himself, "I made it o' purpose for you, ma'am."
"Thank you," she said hastily. "But I wish you to put it out now."
"It will soon burn down," said Charley, rather disappointed. "Is it not a pity to knock it out?"
"I don't know," she musingly answered.
They stood in silence, broken only by the crackling of the flames, till Charley, perceiving that she did not want to talk to him, moved reluctantly away.
Eustacia remained within the bank looking at the fire, intending to go indoors, yet lingering still. Had she not by her situation been inclined to hold in indifference all things honoured of the gods and of men she would probably have come away. But her state was so hopeless that she could play with it. To have lost is less disturbing than to wonder if we may possibly have won; and Eustacia could now, like other people at such a stage, take a standing-point outside herself, observe herself as a disinterested spectator, and think what a sport for Heaven this woman Eustacia was.
While she stood she heard a sound. It was the splash of a stone in the pond.
Had Eustacia received the stone full in the bosom her heart could not have given a more decided thump. She had thought of the possibility of such a signal in answer to that which had been unwittingly given by Charley; but she had not expected it yet. How prompt Wildeve was! Yet how could he think her capable of deliberately wishing to renew their assignations now? An impulse to leave the spot, a desire to stay, struggled within her; and the desire held its own. More than that it did not do, for she refrained even from ascending the bank and looking over. She remained motionless, not disturbing a muscle of her face or raising her eyes; for were she to turn up her face the fire on the bank would shine upon it, and Wildeve might be looking down.
There was a second splash into the pond.
Why did he stay so long without advancing and looking over? Curiosity had its way--she ascended one or two of the earth-steps in the bank and glanced out.
Wildeve was before her. He had come forward after throwing the last pebble, and the fire now shone into each of their faces from the bank stretching breast-high between them.
"I did not light it!" cried Eustacia quickly. "It was lit without my knowledge. Don't, don't come over to me!"
"Why have you been living here all these days without telling me? You have left your home. I fear I am something to blame in this?"
"I did not let in his mother; that's how it is!"
"You do not deserve what you have got, Eustacia; you are in great misery; I see it in your eyes, your mouth, and all over you. My poor, poor girl!" He stepped over the bank. "You are beyond everything unhappy!"
"No, no; not exactly--"
"It has been pushed too far--it is killing you--I do think it!"
Her usually quiet breathing had grown quicker with his words. "I--I--" she began, and then burst into quivering sobs, shaken to the very heart by the unexpected voice of pity--a sentiment whose existence in relation to herself she had almost forgotten.
This outbreak of weeping took Eustacia herself so much by surprise that she could not leave off, and she turned aside from him in some shame, though turning hid nothing from him. She sobbed on desperately; then the outpour lessened, and she became quieter. Wildeve had resisted the impulse to clasp her, and stood without speaking.
"Are you not ashamed of me, who used never to be a crying animal?" she asked in a weak whisper as she wiped her eyes. "Why didn't you go away? I wish you had not seen quite all that; it reveals too much by half."
"You might have wished it, because it makes me as sad as you," he said with emotion and deference. "As for revealing--the word is impossible between us two."
"I did not send for you--don't forget it, Damon; I am in pain, but I did not send for you! As a wife, at least, I've been straight."
"Never mind--I came. O, Eustacia, forgive me for the harm I have done you in these two past years! I see more and more that I have been your ruin."
"Not you. This place I live in."
"Ah, your generosity may naturally make you say that. But I am the culprit. I should either have done more or nothing at all."
"In what way?"
"I ought never to have hunted you out, or, having done it, I ought to have persisted in retaining you. But of course I have no right to talk of that now. I will only ask this--can I do anything for you? Is there anything on the face of the earth that a man can do to make you happier than you are at present? If there is, I will do it. You may command me, Eustacia, to the limit of my influence; and don't forget that I am richer now. Surely something can be done to save you from this! Such a rare plant in such a wild place it grieves me to see. Do you want anything bought? Do you want to go anywhere? Do you want to escape the place altogether? Only say it, and I'll do anything to put an end to those tears, which but for me would never have been at all."
"We are each married to another person," she said faintly; "and assistance from you would have an evil sound--after--after--"
"Well, there's no preventing slanderers from having their fill at any time; but you need not be afraid. Whatever I may feel I promise you on my word of honour never to speak to you about--or act upon--until you say I may. I know my duty to Thomasin quite as well as I know my duty to you as a woman unfairly treated. What shall I assist you in?"
"In getting away from here."
"Where do you wish to go to?"
"I have a place in my mind. If you could help me as far as Budmouth I can do all the rest. Steamers sail from there across the Channel, and so I can get to Paris, where I want to be. Yes," she pleaded earnestly, "help me to get to Budmouth harbour without my grandfather's or my husband's knowledge, and I can do all the rest."
"Will it be safe to leave you there alone?"
"Yes, yes. I know Budmouth well."
"Shall I go with you? I am rich now."
She was silent.
"Say yes, sweet!"
She was silent still.
"Well, let me know when you wish to go. We shall be at our present house till December; after that we remove to Casterbridge. Command me in anything till that time."
"I will think of this," she said hurriedly. "Whether I can honestly make use of you as a friend, or must close with you as a lover--that is what I must ask myself. If I wish to go and decide to accept your company I will signal to you some evening at eight o'clock punctually, and this will mean that you are to be ready with a horse and trap at twelve o'clock the same night to drive me to Budmouth harbour in time for the morning boat."
"I will look out every night at eight, and no signal shall escape me."
"Now please go away. If I decide on this escape I can only meet you once more unless--I cannot go without you. Go--I cannot bear it longer. Go--go!"
Wildeve slowly went up the steps and descended into the darkness on the other side; and as he walked he glanced back, till the bank blotted out her form from his further view.