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CHAPTER XLIV



UNDER A TREE -- REACTION


BATHSHEBA went along the dark road, neither know-
ing nor caring about the direction or issue of her flight.
The first time that she definitely noticed her position
was when she reached a gate leading into a thicket over-
hung by some large oak and beech trees. On looking
into the place, it occurred to her that she had seen it
by daylight on some previous occasion, and that what
appeared like an impassable thicket was in reality a
brake of fern now withering fast. She could think of
nothing better to do with her palpitating self than to go
in here and hide; and entering, she lighted on a spot
sheltered from the damp fog by a reclining trunk, where
she sank down upon a tangled couch of fronds and
stems. She mechanically pulled some armfuls round
her to keep off the breezes, and closed her eyes.
Whether she slept or not that night Bathsheba was
not clearly aware. But it was with a freshened exist-
ence and a cooler brain that, a long time afterwards, she
became conscious of some interesting proceedings which
were going on in the trees above her head and around.
A coarse-throated chatter was the first sound.
It was a sparrow just waking.
Next: "Chee-weeze-weeze-weeze!" from another
retreat.
It was a finch.
Third: "Tink-tink-tink-tink-a-chink!" from the hedge,
It was a robin.
"Chuck-chuck-chuck!" overhead.
A squirrel.
Then, from the road, "With my ra-ta-ta, and my
rum-tum-tum!"
It was a ploughboy. Presently he came opposite,
and she believed from his voice that he was one of
the boys on her own farm. He was followed by a
shambling tramp of heavy feet, and looking through
the ferns Bathsheba could just discern in the wan light
of daybreak a team of her own horses. They stopped
to drink at a pond on the other side of the way'. She
watched them flouncing into the pool, drinking, tossing
up their heads, drinking again, the water dribbling
from their lips in silver threads. There was another
flounce, and they came out of the pond, and turned
back again towards the farm.
She looked further around. Day was just dawning,
and beside its cool air and colours her heated actions
and resolves of the night stood out in lurid contrast.
She perceived that in her lap, and clinging to her
hair, were red and yellow leaves which had come
down from the tree and settled silently upon her
during her partial sleep. Bathsheba shook her dress to
get rid of them, when multitudes of the same family lying
round about her rose and fluttered away in the breeze
thus created, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing."
There was an opening towards the east, and the
glow from the as yet unrisen sun attracted her eyes
thither. From her feet, and between the beautiful
yellowing ferns with their feathery arms, the ground
sloped downwards to a hollow, in which was a species
of swamp, dotted with fungi. A morning mist hung
over it now -- a fulsome yet magnificent silvery veil,
full of light from the sun, yet semi-opaque -- the hedge
behind it being in some measure hidden by its hazy
luminousness. Up the sides of this depression grew
sheaves of the common rush, and here and there a
peculiar species of flag, the blades of which glistened
in the emerging sun, like scythes. But the general
aspect of the swamp was malignant. From its moist
and poisonous coat seemed to be exhaled the essences
of evil things in the earth, and in the waters under
the earth. The fungi grew in all manner of positions
from rotting leaves and tree stumps, some exhibiting
to her listless gaze their clammy tops, others their
oozing gills. Some were marked with great splotches,
red as arterial blood, others were saffron yellow, and
others tall and attenuated, with stems like macaroni.
Some were leathery and of richest browns. The
hollow seemed a nursery of pestilences small and
great, in the immediate neighbourhood of comfort
and health, and Bathsheba arose with a tremor at the
thought of having passed the night on the brink of
so dismal a place.
"There were now other footsteps to be heard along
the road. Bathsheba's nerves were still unstrung:
she crouched down out of sight again, and the pedes-
trian came into view. He was a schoolboy, with a
bag slung over his shoulder containing his dinner,
and a hook in his hand. He paused by the gate,
and, without looking up, continued murmuring words
in tones quite loud enough to reach her ears.
"O Lord, O Lord, O Lord, O Lord, O Lord": --
that I know out o' book. "Give us, give us, give us,
give us, give us": -- that I know. "Grace that, grace that,
grace that, grace that": -- that I know." Other words
followed to the same effect. The boy was of the
dunce class apparently; the book was a psalter, and
this was his way of learning the collect. In the worst
attacks of trouble there appears to be always a super-
ficial film of consciousness which is left disengaged
and open to the notice of trifles, and Bathsheba was
faintly amused at the boy's method, till he too passed on.
By this time stupor had given place to anxiety, and
anxiety began to make room for hunger and thirst.
A form now appeared upon the rise on the other side
of the swamp, half-hidden by the mist, and came
towards Bathsheba. The woman -- for it was a woman
-- approached with her face askance, as if looking
earnestly on all sides of her. When she got a little
further round to the left, and drew nearer, Bathsheba
could see the newcomer's profile against the sunny
sky', and knew the wavy sweep from forehead to chin,
with neither angle nor decisive line anywhere about
it, to be the familiar contour of Liddy Smallbury.
Bathsheba's heart bounded with gratitude in the
thought that she was not altogether deserted, and she
jumped up. "O, Liddy!" she said, or attempted to say;
but the words had only been framed by her lips; there
came no sound. She had lost her voice by exposure
to the clogged atmosphere all these hours of night.
"O, ma'am! I am so glad I have found you." said
the girl, as soon as she saw Bathsheba.
"You can't come across." Bathsheba said in a whisper,
which she vainly endeavoured to make loud enough to
reach Liddy's ears. Liddy, not knowing this, stepped
down upon the swamp, saying, as she did so, "It will
bear me up, I think."
Bathsheba never forgot that transient little picture
of Liddy crossing the swamp to her there in the
morning light. Iridescent bubbles of dank subter-
ranean breath rose from the sweating sod beside the
waiting maid's feet as she trod, hissing as they burst
and expanded away to join the vapoury firmament above.
Liddy did not sink, as Bathsheba had anticipated.
She landed safely on the other side, and looked up
at the beautiful though pale and weary face of her
young mistress.
"Poor thing!" said Liddy, with tears in her eyes,
Do hearten yourself up a little, ma'am. However
did -- -- "
"I can't speak above a whisper -- my voice is gone
for the present." said Bathsheba, hurriedly." I suppose
the damp air from that hollow has taken it away
Liddy, don't question me, mind. Who sent you --
anybody?"
"Nobody. I thought, when I found you were not
at home, that something cruel had happened. I fancy
I heard his voice late last night; and so, knowing
something was wrong -- -- "
"Is he at home?"
"No; he left just before I came out."
"Is Fanny taken away?"
"Not yet. She will soon be -- at nine o'clock."
"we won't go home at present, then. Suppose we
walk about in this wood?"
Liddy, without exactly understanding everything, or
anything, in this episode, assented, and they walked
together further among the trees.
"But you had better come in, ma'am, and have
something to eat. You will die of a chill!"
"I shall not come indoors yet -- perhaps never."
"Shall I get you something to eat, and something
else to put over your head besides that little shawl?"
"If you will, Liddy."
Liddy vanished, and at the end of twenty minutes
returned with a cloak, hat, some slices of bread and
butter, a tea-cup, and some hot tea in a little china jug
"Is Fanny gone?" said Bathsheba.
"No." said her companion, pouring out the tea.
Bathsheba wrapped herself up and ate and drank
sparingly. Her voice was then a little clearer, and
trifling colour returned to her face. "Now we'll walk
about again." she said.
They wandered about the wood for nearly two
hours, Bathsheba replying in monosyllables to Liddy's
prattle, for her mind ran on one subject, and one only.
She interrupted with --
"l wonder if Fanny is gone by this time?"
"I will go and see."
She came back with the information that the
men were just taking away the corpse; that Bathsheba
had been inquired for; that she had replied to the
effect that her mistress was unwell and could not be
seen.
"Then they think I am in my bedroom?"
"Yes." Liddy then ventured to add:" You said
when I first found you that you might never go home
again -- you didn't mean it, ma'am?"
"No; I've altered my mind. It is only women with
no pride in them who run away from their husbands.
There is one position worse than that of being found
dead in your husband's house from his ill usage, and
that is, to be found alive through having gone away to
The house of somebody else. I've thought of it all this
morning, and I've chosen my course. A runaway wife
is an encumbrance to everybody, a burden to herself and
a byword -- all of which make up a heap of misery
greater than any that comes by staying at home --
though this may include the trifling items of insult,
beating, and starvation. Liddy, if ever you marry --
God forbid that you ever should! -- you'll find yourself
in a fearful situation; but mind this, don't you flinch.
Stand your ground, and be cut to pieces. That's
what I'm going to do."
"O, mistress, don't talk so!" said Liddy,-taking her
hand; "but I knew you had too much sense to bide
away. May I ask what dreadful thing it is that has
happened between you and him?"
"You may ask; but I may not tell."
In about ten minutes they returned to the house by
a circuitous route, entering at the rear. Bathsheba
glided up the back stairs to a disused attic, and her
companion followed.
"Liddy." she said, with a lighter heart, for youth and
hope had begun to reassert themselves;" you are to be
my confidante for the present -- somebody must be -- and
I choose you. Well, I shall take up my abode here for
a while. Will you get a fire lighted, put down a piece
of carpet, and help me to make the place comfortable.
Afterwards, I want you and Maryann to bring up that
little stump bedstead in the small room, and the be
belonging to it, and a table, and some other things.
What shall I do to pass the heavy time away?"
"Hemming handkerchiefs is a very good thing." said
Liddy.
"O no, no! I hate needlework-i always did."
"knitting?"
"And that, too."
"You might finish your sampler. Only the carna-
tions and peacocks want filling in; and then it could
be framed and glazed, and hung beside your aunt"
ma'am."
"Samplers are out of date -- horribly countrified. No
Liddy, I'll read. Bring up some books -- not new ones.
I haven't heart to read anything new."
"Some of your uncle's old ones, ma'am?"
"Yes. Some of those we stowed away in boxes." A
faint gleam of humour passed over her face as she said:
"Bring Beaumont and Fletcher's Maid's Tragedy, and
the Mourning Bride, and let me see -- Night Thoughts,
and the Vanity of Human Wishes."
"And that story of the black man, who murdered his
wife Desdemona? It is a nice dismal one that would
suit you excellent just now."
"Now, Liddy, you've been looking into my book
without telling me; and I said you were not to! How
do you know it would suit me? It wouldn't suit me a
all."
"But if the others do -- -- "
"No, they don't; and I won't read dismal books.
Why should I read dismal books, indeed? Bring me
Love in a Village, and Maid of the Mill, and Doctor
Syntax, and some volumes of the Spectator."
All that day Bathsheba and Liddy lived in the attic
in a state of barricade; a precaution which proved to be
needless as against Troy, for he did not appear in the
neighbourhood or trouble them at all. Bathsheba sat
at the window till sunset, sometimes attempting to read,
at other times watching every movement outside without
much purpose, and listening without much interest to
every sound.
The sun went down almost blood-red that night, and
a livid cloud received its rays in the east. Up against
this dark background the west front of the church
tower -- the only part of the edifice visible from the
farm-house windows -- rose distinct and lustrous, the
vane upon the summit bristling with rays. Hereabouts,
at six o'clock, the young men of the village gathered,
as was their custom, for a game of Prisoners' base. The
spot had been consecrated to this ancient diversion from
time immemorial, the old stocks conveniently forming
a base facing the boundary of the churchyard, in front
of which the ground was trodden hard and bare as a
pavement by the players. She could see the brown
and black heads of the young lads darting about right
and left, their white shirt-sleeves gleaming in the sun;
whilst occasionally a shout and a peal of hearty laughter
varied the stillness of the evening air. They continued
playing for a quarter of an hour or so, when the game
concluded abruptly, and the players leapt over the wall
and vanished round to the other side behind a yew-tree,
which was also half behind a beech, now spreading in
one mass of golden foliage, on which the branches
traced black lines.
"Why did the base-players finish their game so
suddenly?" Bathsheba inquired, the next time that
Liddy entered the room.
"I think 'twas because two men came just then from
Casterbridge and began putting up grand carved
tombstone." said Liddy. "The lads went to see whose
it was."
"Do you know?" Bathsheba asked.
"I don't." said Liddy.





Far From The Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
Category:
English Literature
 
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