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THE MELANCHOLY HUSSAR OF THE GERMAN LEGION




CHAPTER I



Here stretch the downs, high and breezy and green, absolutely
unchanged since those eventful days. A plough has never disturbed
the turf, and the sod that was uppermost then is uppermost now. Here
stood the camp; here are distinct traces of the banks thrown up for
the horses of the cavalry, and spots where the midden-heaps lay are
still to be observed. At night, when I walk across the lonely place,
it is impossible to avoid hearing, amid the scourings of the wind
over the grass-bents and thistles, the old trumpet and bugle calls,
the rattle of the halters; to help seeing rows of spectral tents and
the impedimenta of the soldiery. From within the canvases come
guttural syllables of foreign tongues, and broken songs of the
fatherland; for they were mainly regiments of the King's German
Legion that slept round the tent-poles hereabout at that time.

It was nearly ninety years ago. The British uniform of the period,
with its immense epaulettes, queer cocked-hat, breeches, gaiters,
ponderous cartridge-box, buckled shoes, and what not, would look
strange and barbarous now. Ideas have changed; invention has
followed invention. Soldiers were monumental objects then. A
divinity still hedged kings here and there; and war was considered a
glorious thing.

Secluded old manor-houses and hamlets lie in the ravines and hollows
among these hills, where a stranger had hardly ever been seen till
the King chose to take the baths yearly at the sea-side watering-
place a few miles to the south; as a consequence of which battalions
descended in a cloud upon the open country around. Is it necessary
to add that the echoes of many characteristic tales, dating from that
picturesque time, still linger about here in more or less fragmentary
form, to be caught by the attentive ear? Some of them I have
repeated; most of them I have forgotten; one I have never repeated,
and assuredly can never forget.

Phyllis told me the story with her own lips. She was then an old
lady of seventy-five, and her auditor a lad of fifteen. She enjoined
silence as to her share in the incident, till she should be 'dead,
buried, and forgotten.' Her life was prolonged twelve years after
the day of her narration, and she has now been dead nearly twenty.
The oblivion which in her modesty and humility she courted for
herself has only partially fallen on her, with the unfortunate result
of inflicting an injustice upon her memory; since such fragments of
her story as got abroad at the time, and have been kept alive ever
since, are precisely those which are most unfavourable to her
character.

It all began with the arrival of the York Hussars, one of the foreign
regiments above alluded to. Before that day scarcely a soul had been
seen near her father's house for weeks. When a noise like the
brushing skirt of a visitor was heard on the doorstep, it proved to
be a scudding leaf; when a carriage seemed to be nearing the door, it
was her father grinding his sickle on the stone in the garden for his
favourite relaxation of trimming the box-tree borders to the plots.
A sound like luggage thrown down from the coach was a gun far away at
sea; and what looked like a tall man by the gate at dusk was a yew
bush cut into a quaint and attenuated shape. There is no such
solitude in country places now as there was in those old days.

Yet all the while King George and his court were at his favourite
sea-side resort, not more than five miles off.

The daughter's seclusion was great, but beyond the seclusion of the
girl lay the seclusion of the father. If her social condition was
twilight, his was darkness. Yet he enjoyed his darkness, while her
twilight oppressed her. Dr. Grove had been a professional man whose
taste for lonely meditation over metaphysical questions had
diminished his practice till it no longer paid him to keep it going;
after which he had relinquished it and hired at a nominal rent the
small, dilapidated, half farm half manor-house of this obscure inland
nook, to make a sufficiency of an income which in a town would have
been inadequate for their maintenance. He stayed in his garden the
greater part of the day, growing more and more irritable with the
lapse of time, and the increasing perception that he had wasted his
life in the pursuit of illusions. He saw his friends less and less
frequently. Phyllis became so shy that if she met a stranger
anywhere in her short rambles she felt ashamed at his gaze, walked
awkwardly, and blushed to her shoulders.

Yet Phyllis was discovered even here by an admirer, and her hand most
unexpectedly asked in marriage.

The King, as aforesaid, was at the neighbouring town, where he had
taken up his abode at Gloucester Lodge and his presence in the town
naturally brought many county people thither. Among these idlers--
many of whom professed to have connections and interests with the
Court--was one Humphrey Gould, a bachelor; a personage neither young
nor old; neither good-looking nor positively plain. Too steady-going
to be 'a buck' (as fast and unmarried men were then called), he was
an approximately fashionable man of a mild type. This bachelor of
thirty found his way to the village on the down: beheld Phyllis;
made her father's acquaintance in order to make hers; and by some
means or other she sufficiently inflamed his heart to lead him in
that direction almost daily; till he became engaged to marry her.

As he was of an old local family, some of whose members were held in
respect in the county, Phyllis, in bringing him to her feet, had
accomplished what was considered a brilliant move for one in her
constrained position. How she had done it was not quite known to
Phyllis herself. In those days unequal marriages were regarded
rather as a violation of the laws of nature than as a mere
infringement of convention, the more modern view, and hence when
Phyllis, of the watering-place bourgeoisie, was chosen by such a
gentlemanly fellow, it was as if she were going to be taken to
heaven, though perhaps the uninformed would have seen no great
difference in the respective positions of the pair, the said Gould
being as poor as a crow.

This pecuniary condition was his excuse--probably a true one--for
postponing their union, and as the winter drew nearer, and the King
departed for the season, Mr. Humphrey Gould set out for Bath,
promising to return to Phyllis in a few weeks. The winter arrived,
the date of his promise passed, yet Gould postponed his coming, on
the ground that he could not very easily leave his father in the city
of their sojourn, the elder having no other relative near him.
Phyllis, though lonely in the extreme, was content. The man who had
asked her in marriage was a desirable husband for her in many ways;
her father highly approved of his suit; but this neglect of her was
awkward, if not painful, for Phyllis. Love him in the true sense of
the word she assured me she never did, but she had a genuine regard
for him; admired a certain methodical and dogged way in which he
sometimes took his pleasure; valued his knowledge of what the Court
was doing, had done, or was about to do; and she was not without a
feeling of pride that he had chosen her when he might have exercised
a more ambitious choice.

But he did not come; and the spring developed. His letters were
regular though formal; and it is not to be wondered that the
uncertainty of her position, linked with the fact that there was not
much passion in her thoughts of Humphrey, bred an indescribable
dreariness in the heart of Phyllis Grove. The spring was soon
summer, and the summer brought the King; but still no Humphrey Gould.
All this while the engagement by letter was maintained intact.

At this point of time a golden radiance flashed in upon the lives of
people here, and charged all youthful thought with emotional
interest. This radiance was the aforesaid York Hussars.





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

Short stories
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