eBooks Cube
 
CHAPTER XL



ON CASTERBRIDGE HIGHWAY


FOR a considerable time the woman walked on. Her
steps became feebler, and she strained her eyes to look
afar upon the naked road, now indistinct amid the
penumbrae of night. At length her onward walk
dwindled to the merest totter, and she opened a gate
within which was a haystack. Underneath this she sat
down and presently slept.
When the woman awoke it was to find herself in the
depths of a moonless and starless night. A heavy un-
broken crust of cloud stretched across the sky, shutting
out every speck of heaven; and a distant halo which
hung over the town of Casterbridge was visible against
the black concave, the luminosity appearing the
brighter by its great contrast with the circumscribing
darkness. Towards this weak, soft glow the woman
turned her eyes.
"If I could only get there!" she said. "Meet him
the day after to-morrow: God help me! Perhaps I
shall be in my grave before then."
A manor-house clock from the far depths of shadow
struck the hour, one, in a small, attenuated tone. After
midnight the voice of a clock seems to lose in breadth
as much as in length, and to diminish its sonorousness
to a thin falsetto.
Afterwards a light -- two lights -- arose from the re-
mote shade, and grew larger. A carriage rolled along
the toad, and passed the gate. It probably contained
some late diners-out. The beams from one lamp shone
for a moment upon the crouching woman, and threw
her face into vivid relieff. The face was young in the
groundwork, old in the finish; the general contours
were flexuous and childlike, but the finer lineaments
had begun to be sharp and thin.
The pedestrian stood up, apparently with revived
determination, and looked around. The road appeared
to be familiar to her, and she carefully scanned the fence
as she slowly walked along. Presently there became
visible a dim white shape; it was another milestone.
She drew her fingers across its face to feel the marks.
"Two more!" she said.
She leant against the stone as a means of rest for a
short interval, then bestirred herself, and again pursued
her way. For a slight distance she bore up bravely,
afterwards flagging as before. This was beside a lone
copsewood, wherein heaps of white chips strewn upon
the leafy ground showed that woodmen had been
faggoting and making hurdles during the day. Now
there was not a rustle, not a breeze, not the faintest
clash of twigs to keep her company. The woman
looked over the gate, opened it, and went in. Close
to the entrance stood a row of faggots, bound and un-
bound, together with stakes of all sizes.
For a few seconds the wayfarer stood with that tense
stillness which signifies itself to be not the end but
merely the suspension, of a previous motion. Her
attitude was that of a person who listens, either to the
external world of sound, or to the imagined discourse of
thought. A close criticism might have detected signs
proving that she was intent on the latter alternative.
Moreover, as was shown by what followed, she was
oddly exercising the faculty of invention upon the spe-
ciality of the clever Jacquet Droz, the designer of auto-
matic substitutes for human limbs.
By the aid of the Casterbridge aurora, and by feeling
with her hands, the woman selected two sticks from the
heaps. These sticks were nearly straight to the height
of three or four feet, where each branched into a fork
like the letter Y. She sat down, snapped off the small
upper twigs, and carried the remainder with her into
the road. She placed one of these forks under each
arm as a crutch, tested them, timidly threw her whole
weight upon them -- so little that it was -- and swung
herself forward. The girl had made for herself a
material aid.
The crutches answered well. The pat of her feet,
and the tap of her sticks upon the highway, were all the
sounds that came from the traveller now. She had
passed the last milestone by a good long distance, and
began to look wistfully towards the bank as if calculating
upon another milestone soon. The crutches, though
so very useful, had their limits of power. Mechanism
only transfers labour, being powerless to supersede it,
and the original amount of exertion was not cleared
away; it was thrown into the body and arms. She was
exhausted, and each swing forward became fainter. At
last she swayed sideways, and fell.
Here she lay, a shapeless heap, for ten minutes and
more. The morning wind began to boom dully over
the flats, and to move afresh dead leaves which had
lain still since yesterday. The woman desperately
turned round upon her knees, and next rose to her
feet. Steadying herself by the help of one crutch, she
essayed a step, then another, then a third, using the
crutches now as walking-sticks only. Thus she pro-
gressed till descending Mellstock Hill another milestone
appeared, and soon the beginning of an iron-railed fence
came into view. She staggered across to the first post,
clung to it, and looked around.
The Casterbridge lights were now individually visible,
It was getting towards morning, and vehicles might be
hoped for, if not expected soon. She listened. There
was not a sound of life save that acme and sublimation
of all dismal sounds, the hark of a fox, its three hollow
notes being rendered at intervals of a minute with the
precision of a funeral bell.
"Less than a mile!" the woman murmured. "No;
more." she added, after a pause. "The mile is to the
county hall, and my resting-place is on the other side
Casterbridge. A little over a mile, and there I am!"
After an interval she again spoke. "Five or six steps to
a yard -- six perhaps. I have to go seventeen hundred
yards. A hundred times six, six hundred. Seventeen
times that. O pity me, Lord!"
Holding to the rails, she advanced, thrusting one
hand forward upon the rail, then the other, then leaning
over it whilst she dragged her feet on beneath.
This woman was not given to soliloquy; but ex-
tremity of feeling lessens the individuality of the weak,
as it increases that of the strong. She said again in the
same tone, "I'll believe that the end lies five posts for-
ward, and no further, and so get strength to pass them."
This was a practical application of the principle that
a half-feigned and fictitious faith is better than no faith
at all.
She passed five posts and held on to the fifth.
"I'll pass five more by believing my longed-for spot
is at the next fifth. I can do it."
she passed five more.
"It lies only five further."
She passed five more.
"But it is five further."
She passed them.
"That stone bridge is the end of my journey." she
said, when the bridge over the Froom was in view.
She crawled to the bridge. During the effort each
breath of the woman went into the air as if never to
return again.
"Now for the truth of the matter." she said, sitting
down. "The truth is, that I have less than half a mile."
Self-beguilement with what she had known all the time
to be false had given her strength to come over half
a mile that she would have been powerless to face in
the lump. The artifice showed that the woman, by
some mysterious intuition, had grasped the paradoxical
truth that blindness may operate more vigorously than
prescience, and the short-sighted effect more than the
far-seeing; that limitation, and not comprehensiveness,
is needed for striking a blow.
The half-mile stood now before the sick and weary
woman like a stolid Juggernaut. It was an impassive
King of her world. The road here ran across Durnover
Moor, open to the road on either side. She surveyed
the wide space, the lights, herself, sighed, and lay down
against a guard-stone of the bridge.
Never was ingenuity exercised so sorely as the
traveller here exercised hers. Every conceivable aid,
method, stratagem, mechanism, by which these last
desperate eight hundred yards could be overpassed by a
human being unperceived, was revolved in her busy
brain, and dismissed as impracticable. She thought of
sticks, wheels, crawling -- she even thought of rolling.
But the exertion demanded by either of these latter two
was greater than to walk erect. The faculty of con-
trivance was worn out, Hopelessness had come at
last.
"No further!" she whispered, and closed her eyes.
From the stripe of shadow on the opposite side of
the bridge a portion of shade seemed to detach itself
and move into isolation upon the pale white of the road.
It glided noiselessly towards the recumbent woman.
She became conscious of something touching her
hand; it was softness and it was warmth. She
opened her eye's, and the substance touched her face.
A dog was licking her cheek.
He was huge, heavy, and quiet creature, standing
darkly against the low horizon, and at least two feet
higher than the present position of her eyes. Whether
Newfoundland, mastiff, bloodhound, or what not, it was
impossible to say. He seemed to be of too strange and
mysterious a nature to belong to any variety among those
of popular nomenclature. Being thus assignable to no
breed, he was the ideal embodiment of canine greatness
-- a generalization from what was common to all. Night,
in its sad, solemn, and benevolent aspect, apart from its
stealthy and cruel side, was personified in this form
Darkness endows the small and ordinary ones among
mankind with poetical power, and even the suffering
woman threw her idea into figure.
In her reclining position she looked up to him just
as in earlier times she had, when standing, looked up
to a man. The animal, who was as homeless as she,
respectfully withdrew a step or two when the woman
moved, and, seeing that she did not repulse him, he
licked her hand again.
A thought moved within her like lightning. "Perhaps
I can make use of him -- I might do it then!"
She pointed in the direction of Casterbridge, and
the dog seemed to misunderstand: he trotted on. Then,
finding she could not follow, he came back and whined.
The ultimate and saddest singularity of woman's effort
and invention was reached when, with a quickened breath-
ing, she rose to a stooping posture, and, resting her two
little arms upon the shoulders of the dog, leant firmly
thereon, and murmured stimulating words. Whilst she
sorrowed in her heart she cheered with her voice, and
what was stranger than that the strong should need
encouragement from the weak was that cheerfulness
should be so well stimulated by such utter dejection.
Her friend moved forward slowly, and she with small
mincing steps moved forward beside him, half her
weight being thrown upon the animal. Sometimes
she sank as she had sunk from walking erect, from
the crutches, from the rails. The dog, who now
thoroughly understood her desire and her incapacity,
was frantic in his distress on these occasions; he would
tug at her dress and run forward. She always called
him back, and it was now to be observed that the
woman listened for human sounds only to avoid them.
It was evident that she had an object in keeping her
presence on the road and her forlorn state unknown.
Their progress was necessarily very slow. They
reached the bottom of the town, and the Casterbridge
lamps lay before them like fallen Pleiads as they turned
to the left into the dense shade of a deserted avenue of
chestnuts, and so skirted the borough. Thus the town
was passed, and the goal was reached.
On this much-desired spot outside the town rose a
picturesque building. Originally it had been a mere
case to hold people. The shell had been so thin, so
devoid of excrescence, and so closely drawn over the
accommodation granted, that the grim character of
what was beneath showed through it, as the shape of
a body is visible under a winding-sheet.
Then Nature, as if offended, lent a hand. Masses
of ivy grew up, completely covering the walls, till the
place looked like an abbey; and it was discovered that
the view from the front, over the Casterbridge chimneys,
was one of the most magnificent in the county. A
neighbouring earl once said that he would give up a
year's rental to have at his own door the view enjoyed
by the inmates from theirs -- and very probably the
inmates would have given up the view for his year's
rental.
This stone edifice consisted of a central mass and
two wings, whereon stood as sentinels a few slim
chimneys, now gurgling sorrowfully to the slow wind.
In the wall was a gate, and by the gate a bellpull
formed of a hanging wire. The woman raised herself
as high as possible upon her knees, and could just
reach the handle. She moved it and fell forwards in
a bowed attitude, her face upon her bosom.
It was getting on towards six o'clock, and sounds of
movement were to be heard inside the building which
was the haven of rest to this wearied soul. A little door
by the large one was opened, and a man appeared inside.
He discerned the panting heap of clothes, went back
for a light, and came again. He entered a second
time, and returned with two women.
These lifted the prostrate figure and assisted her in
through the doorway. The man then closed the door.
How did she get here?" said one of the women.
"The Lord knows." said the other.
There is a dog outside," murmured the overcome
traveller. "Where is he gone? He helped me."
I stoned him away." said the man.
The little procession then moved forward -- the man
in front bearing the light, the two bony women next,
supporting between them the small and supple one.
Thus they entered the house and disappeared.





Far From The Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
Category:
English Literature
 
Send this page to a friend
Nabou.com: the big site