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CHAPTER IV



It was on a soft, dark evening of the following week that they
engaged in the adventure. Tina was to meet her at a point in the
highway at which the lane to the village branched off. Christoph was
to go ahead of them to the harbour where the boat lay, row it round
the Nothe--or Look-out as it was called in those days--and pick them
up on the other side of the promontory, which they were to reach by
crossing the harbour-bridge on foot, and climbing over the Look-out
hill.

As soon as her father had ascended to his room she left the house,
and, bundle in hand, proceeded at a trot along the lane. At such an
hour not a soul was afoot anywhere in the village, and she reached
the junction of the lane with the highway unobserved. Here she took
up her position in the obscurity formed by the angle of a fence,
whence she could discern every one who approached along the turnpike-
road, without being herself seen.

She had not remained thus waiting for her lover longer than a minute-
-though from the tension of her nerves the lapse of even that short
time was trying--when, instead of the expected footsteps, the stage-
coach could be heard descending the hill. She knew that Tina would
not show himself till the road was clear, and waited impatiently for
the coach to pass. Nearing the corner where she was it slackened
speed, and, instead of going by as usual, drew up within a few yards
of her. A passenger alighted, and she heard his voice. It was
Humphrey Gould's.

He had brought a friend with him, and luggage. The luggage was
deposited on the grass, and the coach went on its route to the royal
watering-place.

'I wonder where that young man is with the horse and trap?' said her
former admirer to his companion. 'I hope we shan't have to wait here
long. I told him half-past nine o'clock precisely.'

'Have you got her present safe?'

'Phyllis's? O, yes. It is in this trunk. I hope it will please
her.'

'Of course it will. What woman would not be pleased with such a
handsome peace-offering?'

'Well--she deserves it. I've treated her rather badly. But she has
been in my mind these last two days much more than I should care to
confess to everybody. Ah, well; I'll say no more about that. It
cannot be that she is so bad as they make out. I am quite sure that
a girl of her good wit would know better than to get entangled with
any of those Hanoverian soldiers. I won't believe it of her, and
there's an end on't.'

More words in the same strain were casually dropped as the two men
waited; words which revealed to her, as by a sudden illumination, the
enormity of her conduct. The conversation was at length cut off by
the arrival of the man with the vehicle. The luggage was placed in
it, and they mounted, and were driven on in the direction from which
she had just come.

Phyllis was so conscience-stricken that she was at first inclined to
follow them; but a moment's reflection led her to feel that it would
only be bare justice to Matthaus to wait till he arrived, and explain
candidly that she had changed her mind--difficult as the struggle
would be when she stood face to face with him. She bitterly
reproached herself for having believed reports which represented
Humphrey Gould as false to his engagement, when, from what she now
heard from his own lips, she gathered that he had been living full of
trust in her. But she knew well enough who had won her love.
Without him her life seemed a dreary prospect, yet the more she
looked at his proposal the more she feared to accept it--so wild as
it was, so vague, so venturesome. She had promised Humphrey Gould,
and it was only his assumed faithlessness which had led her to treat
that promise as nought. His solicitude in bringing her these gifts
touched her; her promise must be kept, and esteem must take the place
of love. She would preserve her self-respect. She would stay at
home, and marry him, and suffer.

Phyllis had thus braced herself to an exceptional fortitude when, a
few minutes later, the outline of Matthaus Tina appeared behind a
field-gate, over which he lightly leapt as she stepped forward.
There was no evading it, he pressed her to his breast.

'It is the first and last time!' she wildly thought as she stood
encircled by his arms.

How Phyllis got through the terrible ordeal of that night she could
never clearly recollect. She always attributed her success in
carrying out her resolve to her lover's honour, for as soon as she
declared to him in feeble words that she had changed her mind, and
felt that she could not, dared not, fly with him, he forbore to urge
her, grieved as he was at her decision. Unscrupulous pressure on his
part, seeing how romantically she had become attached to him, would
no doubt have turned the balance in his favour. But he did nothing
to tempt her unduly or unfairly.

On her side, fearing for his safety, she begged him to remain. This,
he declared, could not be. 'I cannot break faith with my friend,'
said he. Had he stood alone he would have abandoned his plan. But
Christoph, with the boat and compass and chart, was waiting on the
shore; the tide would soon turn; his mother had been warned of his
coming; go he must.

Many precious minutes were lost while he tarried, unable to tear
himself away. Phyllis held to her resolve, though it cost her many a
bitter pang. At last they parted, and he went down the hill. Before
his footsteps had quite died away she felt a desire to behold at
least his outline once more, and running noiselessly after him
regained view of his diminishing figure. For one moment she was
sufficiently excited to be on the point of rushing forward and
linking her fate with his. But she could not. The courage which at
the critical instant failed Cleopatra of Egypt could scarcely be
expected of Phyllis Grove.

A dark shape, similar to his own, joined him in the highway. It was
Christoph, his friend. She could see no more; they had hastened on
in the direction of the town and harbour, four miles ahead. With a
feeling akin to despair she turned and slowly pursued her way
homeward.

Tattoo sounded in the camp; but there was no camp for her now. It
was as dead as the camp of the Assyrians after the passage of the
Destroying Angel.

She noiselessly entered the house, seeing nobody, and went to bed.
Grief, which kept her awake at first, ultimately wrapped her in a
heavy sleep. The next morning her father met her at the foot of the
stairs.

'Mr. Gould is come!' he said triumphantly.

Humphrey was staying at the inn, and had already called to inquire
for her. He had brought her a present of a very handsome looking-
glass in a frame of repousse silverwork, which her father held in his
hand. He had promised to call again in the course of an hour, to ask
Phyllis to walk with him.

Pretty mirrors were rarer in country-houses at that day than they are
now, and the one before her won Phyllis's admiration. She looked
into it, saw how heavy her eyes were, and endeavoured to brighten
them. She was in that wretched state of mind which leads a woman to
move mechanically onward in what she conceives to be her allotted
path. Mr. Humphrey had, in his undemonstrative way, been adhering
all along to the old understanding; it was for her to do the same,
and to say not a word of her own lapse. She put on her bonnet and
tippet, and when he arrived at the hour named she was at the door
awaiting him.





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

Short stories
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