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CHAPTER IV



The following December, a day or two before Christmas, Mrs. Fellmer
and her son were walking up and down the broad gravel path which
bordered the east front of the house. Till within the last half-hour
the morning had been a drizzling one, and they had just emerged for a
short turn before luncheon.

'You see, dear mother,' the son was saying, 'it is the peculiarity of
my position which makes her appear to me in such a desirable light.
When you consider how I have been crippled at starting, how my life
has been maimed; that I feel anything like publicity distasteful,
that I have ye no political ambition, and that my chief aim and hope
lie in the education of the little thing Annie has left me, you must
see how desirable a wife like Miss Halborough would be, to prevent my
becoming a mere vegetable.'

'If you adore her, I suppose you must have her!' replied his mother
with dry indirectness. 'But you'll find that she will not be content
to live on here as you do, giving her whole mind to a young child.'

'That's just where we differ. Her very disqualification, that of
being a nobody, as you call it, is her recommendation in my eyes.
Her lack of influential connections limits her ambition. From what I
know of her, a life in this place is all that she would wish for.
She would never care to go outside the park-gates if it were
necessary to stay within.'

'Being in love with her, Albert, and meaning to marry her, you invent
your practical reasons to make the case respectable. Well, do as you
will; I have no authority over you, so why should you consult me?
You mean to propose on this very occasion, no doubt. Don't you,
now?'

'By no means. I am merely revolving the idea in my mind. If on
further acquaintance she turns out to be as good as she has hitherto
seemed--well, I shall see. Admit, now, that you like her.'

'I readily admit it. She is very captivating at first sight. But as
a stepmother to your child! You seem mighty anxious, Albert, to get
rid of me!'

'Not at all. And I am not so reckless as you think. I don't make up
my mind in a hurry. But the thought having occurred to me, I mention
it to you at once, mother. If you dislike it, say so.'

'I don't say anything. I will try to make the best of it if you are
determined. When does she come?'

'To-morrow.'

All this time there were great preparations in train at the curate's,
who was now a householder. Rosa, whose two or three weeks' stay on
two occasions earlier in the year had so affected the squire, was
coming again, and at the same time her younger brother Cornelius, to
make up a family party. Rosa, who journeyed from the Midlands, could
not arrive till late in the evening, but Cornelius was to get there
in the afternoon, Joshua going out to meet him in his walk across the
fields from the railway.

Everything being ready in Joshua's modest abode he started on his
way, his heart buoyant and thankful, if ever it was in his life. He
was of such good report himself that his brother's path into holy
orders promised to be unexpectedly easy; and he longed to compare
experiences with him, even though there was on hand a more exciting
matter still. From his youth he had held that, in old-fashioned
country places, the Church conferred social prestige up to a certain
point at a cheaper price than any other profession or pursuit; and
events seemed to be proving him right.

He had walked about half an hour when he saw Cornelius coming along
the path; and in a few minutes the two brothers met. The experiences
of Cornelius had been less immediately interesting than those of
Joshua, but his personal position was satisfactory, and there was
nothing to account for the singularly subdued manner that he
exhibited, which at first Joshua set down to the fatigue of over-
study; and he proceeded to the subject of Rosa's arrival in the
evening, and the probable consequences of this her third visit.
'Before next Easter she'll be his wife, my boy,' said Joshua with
grave exultation.

Cornelius shook his head. 'She comes too late!' he returned.

'What do you mean?'

'Look here.' He produced the Fountall paper, and placed his finger
on a paragraph, which Joshua read. It appeared under the report of
Petty Sessions, and was a commonplace case of disorderly conduct, in
which a man was sent to prison for seven days for breaking windows in
that town.

'Well?' said Joshua.

'It happened during an evening that I was in the street; and the
offender is our father.'

'Not--how--I sent him more money on his promising to stay in Canada?'

'He is home, safe enough.' Cornelius in the same gloomy tone gave
the remainder of his information. He had witnessed the scene,
unobserved of his father, and had heard him say that he was on his
way to see his daughter, who was going to marry a rich gentleman.
The only good fortune attending the untoward incident was that the
millwright's name had been printed as Joshua Alborough.

'Beaten! We are to be beaten on the eve of our expected victory!'
said the elder brother. 'How did he guess that Rosa was likely to
marry? Good Heaven Cornelius, you seem doomed to bring bad news
always, do you not!'

'I do,' said Cornelius. 'Poor Rosa!'

It was almost in tears, so great was their heart-sickness and shame,
that the brothers walked the remainder of the way to Joshua's
dwelling. In the evening they set out to meet Rosa, bringing her to
the village in a fly; and when she had come into the house, and was
sitting down with them, they almost forgot their secret anxiety in
contemplating her, who knew nothing about it.

Next day the Fellmers came, and the two or three days after that were
a lively time. That the squire was yielding to his impulses--making
up his mind--there could be no doubt. On Sunday Cornelius read the
lessons, and Joshua preached. Mrs. Fellmer was quite maternal
towards Rosa, and it appeared that she had decided to welcome the
inevitable with a good grace. The pretty girl was to spend yet
another afternoon with the elder lady, superintending some parish
treat at the house in observance of Christmas, and afterwards to stay
on to dinner, her brothers to fetch her in the evening. They were
also invited to dine, but they could not accept owing to an
engagement.

The engagement was of a sombre sort. They were going to meet their
father, who would that day be released from Fountall Gaol, and try to
persuade him to keep away from Narrobourne. Every exertion was to be
made to get him back to Canada, to his old home in the Midlands--
anywhere, so that he would not impinge disastrously upon their
courses, and blast their sister's prospects of the auspicious
marriage which was just then hanging in the balance.

As soon as Rosa had been fetched away by her friends at the manor-
house her brothers started on their expedition, without waiting for
dinner or tea. Cornelius, to whom the millwright always addressed
his letters when he wrote any, drew from his pocket and re-read as he
walked the curt note which had led to this journey being undertaken;
it was despatched by their father the night before, immediately upon
his liberation, and stated that he was setting out for Narrobourne at
the moment of writing; that having no money he would be obliged to
walk all the way; that he calculated on passing through the
intervening town of Ivell about six on the following day, where he
should sup at the Castle Inn, and where he hoped they would meet him
with a carriage-and-pair, or some other such conveyance, that he
might not disgrace them by arriving like a tramp.

'That sounds as if he gave a thought to our position,' said
Cornelius.

Joshua knew the satire that lurked in the paternal words, and said
nothing. Silence prevailed during the greater part of their journey.
The lamps were lighted in Ivell when they entered the streets, and
Cornelius, who was quite unknown in this neighbourhood, and who,
moreover, was not in clerical attire, decided that he should be the
one to call at the Castle Inn. Here, in answer to his inquiry under
the darkness of the archway, they told him that such a man as he had
described left the house about a quarter of an hour earlier, after
making a meal in the kitchen-settle. He was rather the worse for
liquor.

'Then,' said Joshua, when Cornelius joined him outside with this
intelligence, 'we must have met and passed him! And now that I think
of it, we did meet some one who was unsteady in his gait, under the
trees on the other side of Hendford Hill, where it was too dark to
see him.'

They rapidly retraced their steps; but for a long stretch of the way
home could discern nobody. When, however, they had gone about three-
quarters of the distance, they became conscious of an irregular
footfall in front of them, and could see a whitish figure in the
gloom. They followed dubiously. The figure met another wayfarer--
the single one that had been encountered upon this lonely road--and
they distinctly heard him ask the way to Narrobourne. The stranger
replied--what was quite true--that the nearest way was by turning in
at the stile by the next bridge, and following the footpath which
branched thence across the meadows.

When the brothers reached the stile they also entered the path, but
did not overtake the subject of their worry till they had crossed two
or three meads, and the lights from Narrobourne manor-house were
visible before them through the trees. Their father was no longer
walking; he was seated against the wet bank of an adjoining hedge.
Observing their forms he shouted, 'I'm going to Narrobourne; who may
you be?'

They went up to him, and revealed themselves, reminding him of the
plan which he had himself proposed in his note, that they should meet
him at Ivell.

'By Jerry, I'd forgot it!' he said. 'Well, what do you want me to
do?' His tone was distinctly quarrelsome.

A long conversation followed, which became embittered at the first
hint from them that he should not come to the village. The
millwright drew a quart bottle from his pocket, and challenged them
to drink if they meant friendly and called themselves men. Neither
of the two had touched alcohol for years, but for once they thought
it best to accept, so as not to needlessly provoke him.

'What's in it?' said Joshua.

'A drop of weak gin-and-water. It won't hurt ye. Drin' from the
bottle.' Joshua did so, and his father pushed up the bottom of the
vessel so as to make him swallow a good deal in spite of himself. It
went down into his stomach like molten lead.

'Ha, ha, that's right!' said old Halborough. 'But 'twas raw spirit--
ha, ha!'

'Why should you take me in so!' said Joshua, losing his self-command,
try as he would to keep calm.

'Because you took me in, my lad, in banishing me to that cursed
country under pretence that it was for my good. You were a pair of
hypocrites to say so. It was done to get rid of me--no more nor
less. But, by Jerry, I'm a match for ye now! I'll spoil your souls
for preaching. My daughter is going to be married to the squire
here. I've heard the news--I saw it in a paper!'

'It is premature--'

'I know it is true; and I'm her father, and I shall give her away, or
there'll be a hell of a row, I can assure ye! Is that where the
gennleman lives?'

Joshua Halborough writhed in impotent despair. Fellmer had not yet
positively declared himself, his mother was hardly won round; a scene
with their father in the parish would demolish as fair a palace of
hopes as was ever builded. The millwright rose. 'If that's where
the squire lives I'm going to call. Just arrived from Canady with
her fortune--ha, ha! I wish no harm to the gennleman, and the
gennleman will wish no harm to me. But I like to take my place in
the family, and stand upon my rights, and lower people's pride!'

'You've succeeded already! Where's that woman you took with you--'

'Woman! She was my wife as lawful as the Constitution--a sight more
lawful than your mother was till some time after you were born!'

Joshua had for many years before heard whispers that his father had
cajoled his mother in their early acquaintance, and had made somewhat
tardy amends; but never from his father's lips till now. It was the
last stroke, and he could not bear it. He sank back against the
hedge. 'It is over!' he said. 'He ruins us all!'

The millwright moved on, waving his stick triumphantly, and the two
brothers stood still. They could see his drab figure stalking along
the path, and over his head the lights from the conservatory of
Narrobourne House, inside which Albert Fellmer might possibly be
sitting with Rosa at that moment, holding her hand, and asking her to
share his home with him.

The staggering whitey-brown form, advancing to put a blot on all
this, had been diminishing in the shade; and now suddenly disappeared
beside a weir. There was the noise of a flounce in the water.

'He has fallen in!' said Cornelius, starting forward to run for the
place at which his father had vanished.

Joshua, awaking from the stupefied reverie into which he had sunk,
rushed to the other's side before he had taken ten steps. 'Stop,
stop, what are you thinking of?' he whispered hoarsely, grasping
Cornelius's arm.

'Pulling him out!'

'Yes, yes--so am I. But--wait a moment--'

'But, Joshua!'

'Her life and happiness, you know--Cornelius--and your reputation and
mine--and our chance of rising together, all three--'

He clutched his brother's arm to the bone; and as they stood
breathless the splashing and floundering in the weir continued; over
it they saw the hopeful lights from the manor-house conservatory
winking through the trees as their bare branches waved to and fro.

The floundering and splashing grew weaker, and they could hear
gurgling words: 'Help--I'm drownded! Rosie--Rosie!'

'We'll go--we must save him. O Joshua!'

'Yes, yes! we must!'

Still they did not move, but waited, holding each other, each
thinking the same thought. Weights of lead seemed to be affixed to
their feet, which would no longer obey their wills. The mead became
silent. Over it they fancied they could see figures moving in the
conservatory. The air up there seemed to emit gentle kisses.

Cornelius started forward at last, and Joshua almost simultaneously.
Two or three minutes brought them to the brink of the stream. At
first they could see nothing in the water, though it was not so deep
nor the night so dark but that their father's light kerseymere coat
would have been visible if he had lain at the bottom. Joshua looked
this way and that.

'He has drifted into the culvert,' he said.

Below the foot-bridge of the weir the stream suddenly narrowed to
half its width, to pass under a barrel arch or culvert constructed
for waggons to cross into the middle of the mead in haymaking time.
It being at present the season of high water the arch was full to the
crown, against which the ripples clucked every now and then. At this
point he had just caught sight of a pale object slipping under. In a
moment it was gone.

They went to the lower end, but nothing emerged. For a long time
they tried at both ends to effect some communication with the
interior, but to no purpose.

'We ought to have come sooner!' said the conscience-stricken
Cornelius, when they were quite exhausted, and dripping wet.

'I suppose we ought,' replied Joshua heavily. He perceived his
father's walking-stick on the bank; hastily picking it up he stuck it
into the mud among the sedge. Then they went on.

'Shall we--say anything about this accident?' whispered Cornelius as
they approached the door of Joshua's house.

'What's the use? It can do no good. We must wait until he is
found.'

They went indoors and changed their clothes; after which they started
for the manor-house, reaching it about ten o'clock. Besides their
sister there were only three guests; an adjoining landowner and his
wife, and the infirm old rector.

Rosa, although she had parted from them so recently, grasped their
hands in an ecstatic, brimming, joyful manner, as if she had not seen
them for years. 'You look pale,' she said.

The brothers answered that they had had a long walk, and were
somewhat tired. Everybody in the room seemed charged full with some
sort of interesting knowledge: the squire's neighbour and his wife
looked wisely around; and Fellmer himself played the part of host
with a preoccupied bearing which approached fervour. They left at
eleven, not accepting the carriage offered, the distance being so
short and the roads dry. The squire came rather farther into the
dark with them than he need have done, and wished Rosa good-night in
a mysterious manner, slightly apart from the rest.

When they were walking along Joshua said, with desperate attempt at
joviality, 'Rosa, what's going on?'

'O, I--' she began between a gasp and a bound. 'He--'

'Never mind--if it disturbs you.'

She was so excited that she could not speak connectedly at first, the
practised air which she had brought home with her having disappeared.
Calming herself she added, 'I am not disturbed, and nothing has
happened. Only he said he wanted to ask me SOMETHING, some day; and
I said never mind that now. He hasn't asked yet, and is coining to
speak to you about it. He would have done so to-night, only I asked
him not to be in a hurry. But he will come to-morrow, I am sure!'





Life's Little Ironies by Thomas Hardy
Category:
19th century fiction

Short stories
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