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CHAPTER III



But news reached the village from a friend of Phyllis's father
concerning Mr. Humphrey Gould, her remarkably cool and patient
betrothed. This gentleman had been heard to say in Bath that he
considered his overtures to Miss Phyllis Grove to have reached only
the stage of a half-understanding; and in view of his enforced
absence on his father's account, who was too great an invalid now to
attend to his affairs, he thought it best that there should be no
definite promise as yet on either side. He was not sure, indeed,
that he might not cast his eyes elsewhere.

This account--though only a piece of hearsay, and as such entitled to
no absolute credit--tallied so well with the infrequency of his
letters and their lack of warmth, that Phyllis did not doubt its
truth for one moment; and from that hour she felt herself free to
bestow her heart as she should choose. Not so her father; he
declared the whole story to be a fabrication. He had known Mr.
Gould's family from his boyhood; and if there was one proverb which
expressed the matrimonial aspect of that family well, it was 'Love me
little, love me long.' Humphrey was an honourable man, who would not
think of treating his engagement so lightly. 'Do you wait in
patience,' he said; 'all will be right enough in time.'

From these words Phyllis at first imagined that her father was in
correspondence with Mr. Gould; and her heart sank within her; for in
spite of her original intentions she had been relieved to hear that
her engagement had come to nothing. But she presently learnt that
her father had heard no more of Humphrey Gould than she herself had
done; while he would not write and address her affianced directly on
the subject, lest it should be deemed an imputation on that
bachelor's honour.

'You want an excuse for encouraging one or other of those foreign
fellows to flatter you with his unmeaning attentions,' her father
exclaimed, his mood having of late been a very unkind one towards
her. 'I see more than I say. Don't you ever set foot outside that
garden-fence without my permission. If you want to see the camp I'll
take you myself some Sunday afternoon.'

Phyllis had not the smallest intention of disobeying him in her
actions, but she assumed herself to be independent with respect to
her feelings. She no longer checked her fancy for the Hussar, though
she was far from regarding him as her lover in the serious sense in
which an Englishman might have been regarded as such. The young
foreign soldier was almost an ideal being to her, with none of the
appurtenances of an ordinary house-dweller; one who had descended she
knew not whence, and would disappear she knew not whither; the
subject of a fascinating dream--no more.

They met continually now--mostly at dusk--during the brief interval
between the going down of the sun and the minute at which the last
trumpet-call summoned him to his tent. Perhaps her manner had become
less restrained latterly; at any rate that of the Hussar was so; he
had grown more tender every day, and at parting after these hurried
interviews she reached down her hand from the top of the wall that he
might press it. One evening he held it so long that she exclaimed,
'The wall is white, and somebody in the field may see your shape
against it!'

He lingered so long that night that it was with the greatest
difficulty that he could run across the intervening stretch of ground
and enter the camp in time. On the next occasion of his awaiting her
she did not appear in her usual place at the usual hour. His
disappointment was unspeakably keen; he remained staring blankly at
the spot, like a man in a trance. The trumpets and tattoo sounded,
and still he did not go.

She had been delayed purely by an accident. When she arrived she was
anxious because of the lateness of the hour, having heard as well as
he the sounds denoting the closing of the camp. She implored him to
leave immediately.

'No,' he said gloomily. 'I shall not go in yet--the moment you come-
-I have thought of your coming all day.'

'But you may be disgraced at being after time?'

'I don't mind that. I should have disappeared from the world some
time ago if it had not been for two persons--my beloved, here, and my
mother in Saarbruck. I hate the army. I care more for a minute of
your company than for all the promotion in the world.'

Thus he stayed and talked to her, and told her interesting details of
his native place, and incidents of his childhood, till she was in a
simmer of distress at his recklessness in remaining. It was only
because she insisted on bidding him good-night and leaving the wall
that he returned to his quarters.

The next time that she saw him he was without the stripes that had
adorned his sleeve. He had been broken to the level of private for
his lateness that night; and as Phyllis considered herself to be the
cause of his disgrace her sorrow was great. But the position was now
reversed; it was his turn to cheer her.

'Don't grieve, meine Liebliche!' he said. 'I have got a remedy for
whatever comes. First, even supposing I regain my stripes, would
your father allow you to marry a non-commissioned officer in the York
Hussars?'

She flushed. This practical step had not been in her mind in
relation to such an unrealistic person as he was; and a moment's
reflection was enough for it. 'My father would not--certainly would
not,' she answered unflinchingly. 'It cannot be thought of! My dear
friend, please do forget me: I fear I am ruining you and your
prospects!'

'Not at all!' said he. 'You are giving this country of yours just
sufficient interest to me to make me care to keep alive in it. If my
dear land were here also, and my old parent, with you, I could be
happy as I am, and would do my best as a soldier. But it is not so.
And now listen. This is my plan. That you go with me to my own
country, and be my wife there, and live there with my mother and me.
I am not a Hanoverian, as you know, though I entered the army as
such; my country is by the Saar, and is at peace with France, and if
I were once in it I should be free.'

'But how get there?' she asked. Phyllis had been rather amazed than
shocked at his proposition. Her position in her father's house was
growing irksome and painful in the extreme; his parental affection
seemed to be quite dried up. She was not a native of the village,
like all the joyous girls around her; and in some way Matthaus Tina
had infected her with his own passionate longing for his country, and
mother, and home.

'But how?' she repeated, finding that he did not answer. 'Will you
buy your discharge?'

'Ah, no,' he said. 'That's impossible in these times. No; I came
here against my will; why should I not escape? Now is the time, as
we shall soon be striking camp, and I might see you no more. This is
my scheme. I will ask you to meet me on the highway two miles off;
on some calm night next week that may be appointed. There will be
nothing unbecoming in it, or to cause you shame; you will not fly
alone with me, for I will bring with me my devoted young friend
Christoph, an Alsatian, who has lately joined the regiment, and who
has agreed to assist in this enterprise. We shall have come from
yonder harbour, where we shall have examined the boats, and found one
suited to our purpose. Christoph has already a chart of the Channel,
and we will then go to the harbour, and at midnight cut the boat from
her moorings, and row away round the point out of sight; and by the
next morning we are on the coast of France, near Cherbourg. The rest
is easy, for I have saved money for the land journey, and can get a
change of clothes. I will write to my mother, who will meet us on
the way.'

He added details in reply to her inquiries, which left no doubt in
Phyllis's mind of the feasibility of the undertaking. But its
magnitude almost appalled her; and it is questionable if she would
ever have gone further in the wild adventure if, on entering the
house that night, her father had not accosted her in the most
significant terms.

'How about the York Hussars?' he said.

'They are still at the camp; but they are soon going away, I
believe.'

'It is useless for you to attempt to cloak your actions in that way.
You have been meeting one of those fellows; you have been seen
walking with him--foreign barbarians, not much better than the French
themselves! I have made up my mind--don't speak a word till I have
done, please!--I have made up my mind that you shall stay here no
longer while they are on the spot. You shall go to your aunt's.'

It was useless for her to protest that she had never taken a walk
with any soldier or man under the sun except himself. Her
protestations were feeble, too, for though he was not literally
correct in his assertion, he was virtually only half in error.

The house of her father's sister was a prison to Phyllis. She had
quite recently undergone experience of its gloom; and when her father
went on to direct her to pack what would be necessary for her to
take, her heart died within her. In after years she never attempted
to excuse her conduct during this week of agitation; but the result
of her self-communing was that she decided to join in the scheme of
her lover and his friend, and fly to the country which he had
coloured with such lovely hues in her imagination. She always said
that the one feature in his proposal which overcame her hesitation
was the obvious purity and straightforwardness of his intentions. He
showed himself to be so virtuous and kind; he treated her with a
respect to which she had never before been accustomed; and she was
braced to the obvious risks of the voyage by her confidence in him.





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

Short stories
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