Life's Little Ironies by Thomas Hardy
A Tragedy of Two Ambitions
It was summer-time, six months later, and mowers and haymakers were at work in the meads. The manor-house, being opposite them, frequently formed a peg for conversation during these operations; and the doings of the squire, and the squire's young wife, the curate's sister--who was at present the admired of most of them, and the interest of all--met with their due amount of criticism.
Rosa was happy, if ever woman could be said to be so. She had not learnt the fate of her father, and sometimes wondered--perhaps with a sense of relief--why he did not write to her from his supposed home in Canada. Her brother Joshua had been presented to a living in a small town, shortly after her marriage, and Cornelius had thereupon succeeded to the vacant curacy of Narrobourne.
These two had awaited in deep suspense the discovery of their father's body; and yet the discovery had not been made. Every day they expected a man or a boy to run up from the meads with the intelligence; but he had never come. Days had accumulated to weeks and months; the wedding had come and gone: Joshua had tolled and read himself in at his new parish; and never a shout of amazement over the millwright's remains.
But now, in June, when they were mowing the meads, the hatches had to be drawn and the water let out of its channels for the convenience of the mowers. It was thus that the discovery was made. A man, stooping low with his scythe, caught a view of the culvert lengthwise, and saw something entangled in the recently bared weeds of its bed. A day or two after there was an inquest; but the body was unrecognizable. Fish and flood had been busy with the millwright; he had no watch or marked article which could be identified; and a verdict of the accidental drowning of a person unknown settled the matter.
As the body was found in Narrobourne parish, there it had to be buried. Cornelius wrote to Joshua, begging him to come and read the service, or to send some one; he himself could not do it. Rather than let in a stranger Joshua came, and silently scanned the coroner's order handed him by the undertaker:-
'I, Henry Giles, Coroner for the Mid-Division of Outer Wessex, do hereby order the Burial of the Body now shown to the Inquest Jury as the Body of an Adult Male Person Unknown . . . ,' etc.
Joshua Halborough got through the service in some way, and rejoined his brother Cornelius at his house. Neither accepted an invitation to lunch at their sister's; they wished to discuss parish matters together. In the afternoon she came down, though they had already called on her, and had not expected to see her again. Her bright eyes, brown hair, flowery bonnet, lemon-coloured gloves, and flush beauty, were like an irradiation into the apartment, which they in their gloom could hardly bear.
'I forgot to tell you,' she said, 'of a curious thing which happened to me a month or two before my marriage--something which I have thought may have had a connection with the accident to the poor man you have buried to-day. It was on that evening I was at the manor- house waiting for you to fetch me; I was in the winter-garden with Albert, and we were sitting silent together, when we fancied we heard a cry. We opened the door, and while Albert ran to fetch his hat, leaving me standing there, the cry was repeated, and my excited senses made me think I heard my own name. When Albert came back all was silent, and we decided that it was only a drunken shout, and not a cry for help. We both forgot the incident, and it never has occurred to me till since the funeral to-day that it might have been this stranger's cry. The name of course was only fancy, or he might have had a wife or child with a name something like mine, poor man!'
When she was gone the brothers were silent till Cornelius said, 'Now mark this, Joshua. Sooner or later she'll know.'
'From one of us. Do you think human hearts are iron-cased safes, that you suppose we can keep this secret for ever?'
'Yes, I think they are, sometimes,' said Joshua.
'No. It will out. We shall tell.'
'What, and ruin her--kill her? Disgrace her children, and pull down the whole auspicious house of Fellmer about our ears? No! May I-- drown where he was drowned before I do it! Never, never. Surely you can say the same, Cornelius!'
Cornelius seemed fortified, and no more was said. For a long time after that day he did not see Joshua, and before the next year was out a son and heir was born to the Fellmers. The villagers rang the three bells every evening for a week and more, and were made merry by Mr. Fellmer's ale; and when the christening came on Joshua paid Narrobourne another visit.
Among all the people who assembled on that day the brother clergymen were the least interested. Their minds were haunted by a spirit in kerseymere in the evening they walked together in the fields.
'She's all right,' said Joshua. 'But here are you doing journey- work, Cornelius, and likely to continue at it till the end of the day, as far as I can see. I, too, with my petty living--what am I after all? . . . To tell the truth, the Church is a poor forlorn hope for people without influence, particularly when their enthusiasm begins to flag. A social regenerator has a better chance outside, where he is unhampered by dogma and tradition. As for me, I would rather have gone on mending mills, with my crust of bread and liberty.'
Almost automatically they had bent their steps along the margin of the river; they now paused. They were standing on the brink of the well-known weir. There were the hatches, there was the culvert; they could see the pebbly bed of the stream through the pellucid water. The notes of the church-bells were audible, still jangled by the enthusiastic villagers.
'Why see--it was there I hid his walking-stick!' said Joshua, looking towards the sedge. The next moment, during a passing breeze, something flashed white on the spot to which the attention of Cornelius was drawn.
From the sedge rose a straight little silver-poplar, and it was the leaves of this sapling which caused the flicker of whiteness.
'His walking-stick has grown!' Joshua added. 'It was a rough one-- cut from the hedge, I remember.'
At every puff of wind the tree turned white, till they could not bear to look at it; and they walked away.
'I see him every night,' Cornelius murmured . . . 'Ah, we read our Hebrews to little account, Jos! [GREEK TEXT] To have endured the cross, despising the shame--there lay greatness! But now I often feel that I should like to put an end to trouble here in this self- same spot.'
'I have thought of it myself,' said Joshua.
'Perhaps we shall, some day,' murmured his brother. 'Perhaps,' said Joshua moodily.
With that contingency to consider in the silence of their nights and days they bent their steps homewards.