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CHAPTER III



The brig sailed on a Monday morning in spring; but Joanna did not
witness its departure. She could not bear the sight that she had
been the means of bringing about. Knowing this, her husband told her
overnight that they were to sail some time before noon next day hence
when, awakening at five the next morning, she heard them bustling
about downstairs, she did not hasten to descend, but lay trying to
nerve herself for the parting, imagining they would leave about nine,
as her husband had done on his previous voyage. When she did descend
she beheld words chalked upon the sloping face of the bureau; but no
husband or sons. In the hastily-scrawled lines Shadrach said they
had gone off thus not to pain her by a leave-taking; and the sons had
chalked under his words: 'Good-bye, mother!'

She rushed to the quay, and looked down the harbour towards the blue
rim of the sea, but she could only see the masts and bulging sails of
the Joanna; no human figures. ''Tis I have sent them!' she said
wildly, and burst into tears. In the house the chalked 'Good-bye'
nearly broke her heart. But when she had re-entered the front room,
and looked across at Emily's, a gleam of triumph lit her thin face at
her anticipated release from the thraldom of subservience.

To do Emily Lester justice, her assumption of superiority was mainly
a figment of Joanna's brain. That the circumstances of the
merchant's wife were more luxurious than Joanna's, the former could
not conceal; though whenever the two met, which was not very often
now, Emily endeavoured to subdue the difference by every means in her
power.

The first summer lapsed away; and Joanna meagrely maintained herself
by the shop, which now consisted of little more than a window and a
counter. Emily was, in truth, her only large customer; and Mrs.
Lester's kindly readiness to buy anything and everything without
questioning the quality had a sting of bitterness in it, for it was
the uncritical attitude of a patron, and almost of a donor. The long
dreary winter moved on; the face of the bureau had been turned to the
wall to protect the chalked words of farewell, for Joanna could never
bring herself to rub them out; and she often glanced at them with wet
eyes. Emily's handsome boys came home for the Christmas holidays;
the University was talked of for them; and still Joanna subsisted as
it were with held breath, like a person submerged. Only one summer
more, and the 'spell' would end. Towards the close of the time Emily
called on her quondam friend. She had heard that Joanna began to
feel anxious; she had received no letter from husband or sons for
some months. Emily's silks rustled arrogantly when, in response to
Joanna's almost dumb invitation, she squeezed through the opening of
the counter and into the parlour behind the shop.

'YOU are all success, and _I_ am all the other way!' said Joanna.

'But why do you think so?' said Emily. 'They are to bring back a
fortune, I hear.'

'Ah! will they come? The doubt is more than a woman can bear. All
three in one ship--think of that! And I have not heard of them for
months!'

'But the time is not up. You should not meet misfortune half-way.'

'Nothing will repay me for the grief of their absence!'

'Then why did you let them go? You were doing fairly well.'

'I made them go!' she said, turning vehemently upon Emily. 'And I'll
tell you why! I could not bear that we should be only muddling on,
and you so rich and thriving! Now I have told you, and you may hate
me if you will!'

'I shall never hate you, Joanna.'

And she proved the truth of her words afterwards. The end of autumn
came, and the brig should have been in port; but nothing like the
Joanna appeared in the channel between the sands. It was now really
time to be uneasy. Joanna Jolliffe sat by the fire, and every gust
of wind caused her a cold thrill. She had always feared and detested
the sea; to her it was a treacherous, restless, slimy creature,
glorying in the griefs of women. 'Still,' she said, 'they MUST
come!'

She recalled to her mind that Shadrach had said before starting that
if they returned safe and sound, with success crowning their
enterprise, he would go as he had gone after his shipwreck, and kneel
with his sons in the church, and offer sincere thanks for their
deliverance. She went to church regularly morning and afternoon, and
sat in the most forward pew, nearest the chancel-step. Her eyes were
mostly fixed on that step, where Shadrach had knelt in the bloom of
his young manhood: she knew to an inch the spot which his knees had
pressed twenty winters before; his outline as he had knelt, his hat
on the step beside him. God was good. Surely her husband must kneel
there again: a son on each side as he had said; George just here,
Jim just there. By long watching the spot as she worshipped it
became as if she saw the three returned ones there kneeling; the two
slim outlines of her boys, the more bulky form between them; their
hands clasped, their heads shaped against the eastern wall. The
fancy grew almost to an hallucination: she could never turn her worn
eyes to the step without seeing them there.

Nevertheless they did not come. Heaven was merciful, but it was not
yet pleased to relieve her soul. This was her purgation for the sin
of making them the slaves of her ambition. But it became more than
purgation soon, and her mood approached despair. Months had passed
since the brig had been due, but it had not returned.

Joanna was always hearing or seeing evidences of their arrival. When
on the hill behind the port, whence a view of the open Channel could
be obtained, she felt sure that a little speck on the horizon,
breaking the eternally level waste of waters southward, was the truck
of the Joana's mainmast. Or when indoors, a shout or excitement of
any kind at the corner of the Town Cellar, where the High Street
joined the Quay, caused her to spring to her feet and cry: ''Tis
they!'

But it was not. The visionary forms knelt every Sunday afternoon on
the chancel-step, but not the real. Her shop had, as it were, eaten
itself hollow. In the apathy which had resulted from her loneliness
and grief she had ceased to take in the smallest supplies, and thus
had sent away her last customer.

In this strait Emily Lester tried by every means in her power to aid
the afflicted woman; but she met with constant repulses.

'I don't like you! I can't bear to see you!' Joanna would whisper
hoarsely when Emily came to her and made advances.

'But I want to help and soothe you, Joanna,' Emily would say.

'You are a lady, with a rich husband and fine sons! What can you
want with a bereaved crone like me!'

'Joanna, I want this: I want you to come and live in my house, and
not stay alone in this dismal place any longer.'

'And suppose they come and don't find me at home? You wish to
separate me and mine! No, I'll stay here. I don't like you, and I
can't thank you, whatever kindness you do me!'

However, as time went on Joanna could not afford to pay the rent of
the shop and house without an income. She was assured that all hope
of the return of Shadrach and his sons was vain, and she reluctantly
consented to accept the asylum of the Lesters' house. Here she was
allotted a room of her own on the second floor, and went and came as
she chose, without contact with the family. Her hair greyed and
whitened, deep lines channeled her forehead, and her form grew gaunt
and stooping. But she still expected the lost ones, and when she met
Emily on the staircase she would say morosely: 'I know why you've
got me here! They'll come, and be disappointed at not finding me at
home, and perhaps go away again; and then you'll be revenged for my
taking Shadrach away from 'ee!'

Emily Lester bore these reproaches from the grief-stricken soul. She
was sure--all the people of Havenpool were sure--that Shadrach and
his sons could not return. For years the vessel had been given up as
lost.

Nevertheless, when awakened at night by any noise, Joanna would rise
from bed and glance at the shop opposite by the light from the
flickering lamp, to make sure it was not they.

It was a damp and dark December night, six years after the departure
of the brig Joanna. The wind was from the sea, and brought up a
fishy mist which mopped the face like moist flannel. Joanna had
prayed her usual prayer for the absent ones with more fervour and
confidence than she had felt for months, and had fallen asleep about
eleven. It must have been between one and two when she suddenly
started up. She had certainly heard steps in the street, and the
voices of Shadrach and her sons calling at the door of the grocery
shop. She sprang out of bed, and, hardly knowing what clothing she
dragged on herself; hastened down Emily's large and carpeted
staircase, put the candle on the hall-table, unfastened the bolts and
chain, and stepped into the street. The mist, blowing up the street
from the Quay, hindered her seeing the shop, although it was so near;
but she had crossed to it in a moment. How was it? Nobody stood
there. The wretched woman walked wildly up and down with her bare
feet--there was not a soul. She returned and knocked with all her
might at the door which had once been her own--they might have been
admitted for the night, unwilling to disturb her till the morning.

It was not till several minutes had elapsed that the young man who
now kept the shop looked out of an upper window, and saw the skeleton
of something human standing below half-dressed.

'Has anybody come?' asked the form.

'O, Mrs. Jolliffe, I didn't know it was you,' said the young man
kindly, for he was aware how her baseless expectations moved her.
'No; nobody has come.'

June 1891.






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

Short stories
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