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ON THE WESTERN CIRCUIT




CHAPTER I



The man who played the disturbing part in the two quiet lives
hereafter depicted--no great man, in any sense, by the way--first had
knowledge of them on an October evening, in the city of Melchester.
He had been standing in the Close, vainly endeavouring to gain amid
the darkness a glimpse of the most homogeneous pile of mediaeval
architecture in England, which towered and tapered from the damp and
level sward in front of him. While he stood the presence of the
Cathedral walls was revealed rather by the ear than by the eyes; he
could not see them, but they reflected sharply a roar of sound which
entered the Close by a street leading from the city square, and,
falling upon the building, was flung back upon him.

He postponed till the morrow his attempt to examine the deserted
edifice, and turned his attention to the noise. It was compounded of
steam barrel-organs, the clanging of gongs, the ringing of hand-
bells, the clack of rattles, and the undistinguishable shouts of men.
A lurid light hung in the air in the direction of the tumult.
Thitherward he went, passing under the arched gateway, along a
straight street, and into the square.

He might have searched Europe over for a greater contrast between
juxtaposed scenes. The spectacle was that of the eighth chasm of the
Inferno as to colour and flame, and, as to mirth, a development of
the Homeric heaven. A smoky glare, of the complexion of brass-
filings, ascended from the fiery tongues of innumerable naphtha lamps
affixed to booths, stalls, and other temporary erections which
crowded the spacious market-square. In front of this irradiation
scores of human figures, more or less in profile, were darting
athwart and across, up, down, and around, like gnats against a
sunset.

Their motions were so rhythmical that they seemed to be moved by
machinery. And it presently appeared that they were moved by
machinery indeed; the figures being those of the patrons of swings,
see-saws, flying-leaps, above all of the three steam roundabouts
which occupied the centre of the position. It was from the latter
that the din of steam-organs came.

Throbbing humanity in full light was, on second thoughts, better than
architecture in the dark. The young man, lighting a short pipe, and
putting his hat on one side and one hand in his pocket, to throw
himself into harmony with his new environment, drew near to the
largest and most patronized of the steam circuses, as the roundabouts
were called by their owners. This was one of brilliant finish, and
it was now in full revolution. The musical instrument around which
and to whose tones the riders revolved, directed its trumpet-mouths
of brass upon the young man, and the long plate-glass mirrors set at
angles, which revolved with the machine, flashed the gyrating
personages and hobby horses kaleidoscopically into his eyes.

It could now be seen that he was unlike the majority of the crowd. A
gentlemanly young fellow, one of the species found in large towns
only, and London particularly, built on delicate lines, well, though
not fashionably dressed, he appeared to belong to the professional
class; he had nothing square or practical about his look, much that
was curvilinear and sensuous. Indeed, some would have called him a
man not altogether typical of the middle-class male of a century
wherein sordid ambition is the master-passion that seems to be taking
the time-honoured place of love.

The revolving figures passed before his eyes with an unexpected and
quiet grace in a throng whose natural movements did not suggest
gracefulness or quietude as a rule. By some contrivance there was
imparted to each of the hobby-horses a motion which was really the
triumph and perfection of roundabout inventiveness--a galloping rise
and fall, so timed that, of each pair of steeds, one was on the
spring while the other was on the pitch. The riders were quite
fascinated by these equine undulations in this most delightful
holiday-game of our times. There were riders as young as six, and as
old as sixty years, with every age between. At first it was
difficult to catch a personality, but by and by the observer's eyes
centred on the prettiest girl out of the several pretty ones
revolving.

It was not that one with the light frock and light hat whom he had
been at first attracted by; no, it was the one with the black cape,
grey skirt, light gloves and--no, not even she, but the one behind
her; she with the crimson skirt, dark jacket, brown hat and brown
gloves. Unmistakably that was the prettiest girl.

Having finally selected her, this idle spectator studied her as well
as he was able during each of her brief transits across his visual
field. She was absolutely unconscious of everything save the act of
riding: her features were rapt in an ecstatic dreaminess; for the
moment she did not know her age or her history or her lineaments,
much less her troubles. He himself was full of vague latter-day
glooms and popular melancholies, and it was a refreshing sensation to
behold this young thing then and there, absolutely as happy as if she
were in a Paradise.

Dreading the moment when the inexorable stoker, grimily lurking
behind the glittering rococo-work, should decide that this set of
riders had had their pennyworth, and bring the whole concern of
steam-engine, horses, mirrors, trumpets, drums, cymbals, and such-
like to pause and silence, he waited for her every reappearance,
glancing indifferently over the intervening forms, including the two
plainer girls, the old woman and child, the two youngsters, the
newly-married couple, the old man with a clay pipe, the sparkish
youth with a ring, the young ladies in the chariot, the pair of
journeyman-carpenters, and others, till his select country beauty
followed on again in her place. He had never seen a fairer product
of nature, and at each round she made a deeper mark in his
sentiments. The stoppage then came, and the sighs of the riders were
audible.

He moved round to the place at which he reckoned she would alight;
but she retained her seat. The empty saddles began to refill, and
she plainly was deciding to have another turn. The young man drew up
to the side of her steed, and pleasantly asked her if she had enjoyed
her ride.

'O yes!' she said, with dancing eyes. 'It has been quite unlike
anything I have ever felt in my life before!'

It was not difficult to fall into conversation with her. Unreserved-
-too unreserved--by nature, she was not experienced enough to be
reserved by art, and after a little coaxing she answered his remarks
readily. She had come to live in Melchester from a village on the
Great Plain, and this was the first time that she had ever seen a
steam-circus; she could not understand how such wonderful machines
were made. She had come to the city on the invitation of Mrs.
Harnham, who had taken her into her household to train her as a
servant, if she showed any aptitude. Mrs. Harnham was a young lady
who before she married had been Miss Edith White, living in the
country near the speaker's cottage; she was now very kind to her
through knowing her in childhood so well. She was even taking the
trouble to educate her. Mrs. Harnham was the only friend she had in
the world, and being without children had wished to have her near her
in preference to anybody else, though she had only lately come;
allowed her to do almost as she liked, and to have a holiday whenever
she asked for it. The husband of this kind young lady was a rich
wine-merchant of the town, but Mrs. Harnham did not care much about
him. In the daytime you could see the house from where they were
talking. She, the speaker, liked Melchester better than the lonely
country, and she was going to have a new hat for next Sunday that was
to cost fifteen and ninepence.

Then she inquired of her acquaintance where he lived, and he told her
in London, that ancient and smoky city, where everybody lived who
lived at all, and died because they could not live there. He came
into Wessex two or three times a year for professional reasons; he
had arrived from Wintoncester yesterday, and was going on into the
next county in a day or two. For one thing he did like the country
better than the town, and it was because it contained such girls as
herself.

Then the pleasure-machine started again, and, to the light-hearted
girl, the figure of the handsome young man, the market-square with
its lights and crowd, the houses beyond, and the world at large,
began moving round as before, countermoving in the revolving mirrors
on her right hand, she being as it were the fixed point in an
undulating, dazzling, lurid universe, in which loomed forward most
prominently of all the form of her late interlocutor. Each time that
she approached the half of her orbit that lay nearest him they gazed
at each other with smiles, and with that unmistakable expression
which means so little at the moment, yet so often leads up to
passion, heart-ache, union, disunion, devotion, overpopulation,
drudgery, content, resignation, despair.

When the horses slowed anew he stepped to her side and proposed
another heat. 'Hang the expense for once,' he said. 'I'll pay!'

She laughed till the tears came.

'Why do you laugh, dear?' said he.

'Because--you are so genteel that you must have plenty of money, and
only say that for fun!' she returned.

'Ha-ha!' laughed the young man in unison, and gallantly producing his
money she was enabled to whirl on again.

As he stood smiling there in the motley crowd, with his pipe in his
hand, and clad in the rough pea-jacket and wideawake that he had put
on for his stroll, who would have supposed him to be Charles Bradford
Raye, Esquire, stuff-gownsman, educated at Wintoncester, called to
the Bar at Lincoln's-Inn, now going the Western Circuit, merely
detained in Melchester by a small arbitration after his brethren had
moved on to the next county-town?





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

Short stories
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