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THE FIDDLER OF THE REELS




'Talking of Exhibitions, World's Fairs, and what not,' said the old
gentleman, 'I would not go round the corner to see a dozen of them
nowadays. The only exhibition that ever made, or ever will make, any
impression upon my imagination was the first of the series, the
parent of them all, and now a thing of old times--the Great
Exhibition of 1851, in Hyde Park, London. None of the younger
generation can realize the sense of novelty it produced in us who
were then in our prime. A noun substantive went so far as to become
an adjective in honour of the occasion. It was "exhibition" hat,"
"exhibition" razor-strop, "exhibition" watch; nay, even "exhibition"
weather, "exhibition" spirits, sweethearts, babies, wives--for the
time.

'For South Wessex, the year formed in many ways an extraordinary
chronological frontier or transit-line, at which there occurred what
one might call a precipice in Time. As in a geological "fault," we
had presented to us a sudden bringing of ancient and modern into
absolute contact, such as probably in no other single year since the
Conquest was ever witnessed in this part of the country.'

These observations led us onward to talk of the different personages,
gentle and simple, who lived and moved within our narrow and peaceful
horizon at that time; and of three people in particular, whose queer
little history was oddly touched at points by the Exhibition, more
concerned with it than that of anybody else who dwelt in those
outlying shades of the world, Stickleford, Mellstock, and Egdon.
First in prominence among these three came Wat Ollamoor--if that were
his real name--whom the seniors in our party had known well.

He was a woman's man, they said,--supremely so--externally little
else. To men be was not attractive; perhaps a little repulsive at
times. Musician, dandy, and company-man in practice; veterinary
surgeon in theory, he lodged awhile in Mellstock village, coming from
nobody knew where; though some said his first appearance in this
neighbourhood had been as fiddle-player in a show at Greenhill Fair.

Many a worthy villager envied him his power over unsophisticated
maidenhood--a power which seemed sometimes to have a touch of the
weird and wizardly in it. Personally he was not ill-favoured, though
rather un-English, his complexion being a rich olive, his rank hair
dark and rather clammy--made still clammier by secret ointments,
which, when he came fresh to a party, caused him to smell like
'boys'-love' (southernwood) steeped in lamp-oil. On occasion he wore
curls--a double row--running almost horizontally around his head.
But as these were sometimes noticeably absent, it was concluded that
they were not altogether of Nature's making. By girls whose love for
him had turned to hatred he had been nicknamed 'Mop,' from this
abundance of hair, which was long enough to rest upon his shoulders;
as time passed the name more and more prevailed.

His fiddling possibly had the most to do with the fascination he
exercised, for, to speak fairly, it could claim for itself a most
peculiar and personal quality, like that in a moving preacher. There
were tones in it which bred the immediate conviction that indolence
and averseness to systematic application were all that lay between
'Mop' and the career of a second Paganini.

While playing he invariably closed his eyes; using no notes, and, as
it were, allowing the violin to wander on at will into the most
plaintive passages ever heard by rustic man. There was a certain
lingual character in the supplicatory expressions he produced, which
would well nigh have drawn an ache from the heart of a gate-post. He
could make any child in the parish, who was at all sensitive to
music, burst into tears in a few minutes by simply fiddling one of
the old dance-tunes he almost entirely affected--country jigs, reels,
and 'Favourite Quick Steps' of the last century--some mutilated
remains of which even now reappear as nameless phantoms in new
quadrilles and gallops, where they are recognized only by the
curious, or by such old-fashioned and far-between people as have been
thrown with men like Wat Ollamoor in their early life.

His date was a little later than that of the old Mellstock quire-band
which comprised the Dewys, Mail, and the rest--in fact, he did not
rise above the horizon thereabout till those well-known musicians
were disbanded as ecclesiastical functionaries. In their honest love
of thoroughness they despised the new man's style. Theophilus Dewy
(Reuben the tranter's younger brother) used to say there was no
'plumness' in it--no bowing, no solidity--it was all fantastical.
And probably this was true. Anyhow, Mop had, very obviously, never
bowed a note of church-music from his birth; he never once sat in the
gallery of Mellstock church where the others had tuned their
venerable psalmody so many hundreds of times; had never, in all
likelihood, entered a church at all. All were devil's tunes in his
repertory. 'He could no more play the Wold Hundredth to his true
time than he could play the brazen serpent,' the tranter would say.
(The brazen serpent was supposed in Mellstock to be a musical
instrument particularly hard to blow.)

Occasionally Mop could produce the aforesaid moving effect upon the
souls of grown-up persons, especially young women of fragile and
responsive organization. Such an one was Car'line Aspent. Though
she was already engaged to be married before she met him, Car'line,
of them all, was the most influenced by Mop Ollamoor's heart-stealing
melodies, to her discomfort, nay, positive pain and ultimate injury.
She was a pretty, invocating, weak-mouthed girl, whose chief defect
as a companion with her sex was a tendency to peevishness now and
then. At this time she was not a resident in Mellstock parish where
Mop lodged, but lived some miles off at Stickleford, farther down the
river.

How and where she first made acquaintance with him and his fiddling
is not truly known, but the story was that it either began or was
developed on one spring evening, when, in passing through Lower
Mellstock, she chanced to pause on the bridge near his house to rest
herself, and languidly leaned over the parapet. Mop was standing on
his door-step, as was his custom, spinning the insidious thread of
semi- and demi-semi-quavers from the E string of his fiddle for the
benefit of passers-by, and laughing as the tears rolled down the
cheeks of the little children hanging around him. Car'line pretended
to be engrossed with the rippling of the stream under the arches, but
in reality she was listening, as he knew. Presently the aching of
the heart seized her simultaneously with a wild desire to glide
airily in the mazes of an infinite dance. To shake off the
fascination she resolved to go on, although it would be necessary to
pass him as he played. On stealthily glancing ahead at the
performer, she found to her relief that his eyes were closed in
abandonment to instrumentation, and she strode on boldly. But when
closer her step grew timid, her tread convulsed itself more and more
accordantly with the time of the melody, till she very nearly danced
along. Gaining another glance at him when immediately opposite, she
saw that ONE of his eyes was open, quizzing her as he smiled at her
emotional state. Her gait could not divest itself of its compelled
capers till she had gone a long way past the house; and Car'line was
unable to shake off the strange infatuation for hours.

After that day, whenever there was to be in the neighbourhood a dance
to which she could get an invitation, and where Mop Ollamoor was to
be the musician, Car'line contrived to be present, though it
sometimes involved a walk of several miles; for he did not play so
often in Stickleford as elsewhere.

The next evidences of his influence over her were singular enough,
and it would require a neurologist to fully explain them. She would
be sitting quietly, any evening after dark, in the house of her
father, the parish clerk, which stood in the middle of Stickleford
village street, this being the highroad between Lower Mellstock and
Moreford, five miles eastward. Here, without a moment's warning, and
in the midst of a general conversation between her father, sister,
and the young man before alluded to, who devotedly wooed her in
ignorance of her infatuation, she would start from her seat in the
chimney-corner as if she had received a galvanic shock, and spring
convulsively towards the ceiling; then she would burst into tears,
and it was not till some half-hour had passed that she grew calm as
usual. Her father, knowing her hysterical tendencies, was always
excessively anxious about this trait in his youngest girl, and feared
the attack to be a species of epileptic fit. Not so her sister
Julia. Julia had found Out what was the cause. At the moment before
the jumping, only an exceptionally sensitive ear situated in the
chimney-nook could have caught from down the flue the beat of a man's
footstep along the highway without. But it was in that footfall, for
which she had been waiting, that the origin of Car'line's involuntary
springing lay. The pedestrian was Mop Ollamoor, as the girl well
knew; but his business that way was not to visit her; he sought
another woman whom he spoke of as his Intended, and who lived at
Moreford, two miles farther on. On one, and only one, occasion did
it happen that Car'line could not control her utterance; it was when
her sister alone chanced to be present. 'Oh--oh--oh--!' she cried.
'He's going to HER, and not coming to ME!'

To do the fiddler justice he had not at first thought greatly of, or
spoken much to, this girl of impressionable mould. But he had soon
found out her secret, and could not resist a little by-play with her
too easily hurt heart, as an interlude between his more serious
performances at Moreford. The two became well acquainted, though
only by stealth, hardly a soul in Stickleford except her sister, and
her lover Ned Hipcroft, being aware of the attachment. Her father
disapproved of her coldness to Ned; her sister, too, hoped she might
get over this nervous passion for a man of whom so little was known.
The ultimate result was that Car'line's manly and simple wooer Edward
found his suit becoming practically hopeless. He was a respectable
mechanic, in a far sounder position than Mop the nominal horse-
doctor; but when, before leaving her, Ned put his flat and final
question, would she marry him, then and there, now or never, it was
with little expectation of obtaining more than the negative she gave
him. Though her father supported him and her sister supported him,
he could not play the fiddle so as to draw your soul out of your body
like a spider's thread, as Mop did, till you felt as limp as withy-
wind and yearned for something to cling to. Indeed, Hipcroft had not
the slightest ear for music; could not sing two notes in tune, much
less play them.

The No he had expected and got from her, in spite of a preliminary
encouragement, gave Ned a new start in life. It had been uttered in
such a tone of sad entreaty that he resolved to persecute her no
more; she should not even be distressed by a sight of his form in the
distant perspective of the street and lane. He left the place, and
his natural course was to London.

The railway to South Wessex was in process of construction, but it
was not as yet opened for traffic; and Hipcroft reached the capital
by a six days' trudge on foot, as many a better man had done before
him. He was one of the last of the artisan class who used that now
extinct method of travel to the great centres of labour, so customary
then from time immemorial.

In London he lived and worked regularly at his trade. More fortunate
than many, his disinterested willingness recommended him from the
first. During the ensuing four years he was never out of employment.
He neither advanced nor receded in the modern sense; he improved as a
workman, but he did not shift one jot in social position. About his
love for Car'line he maintained a rigid silence. No doubt he often
thought of her; but being always occupied, and having no relations at
Stickleford, he held no communication with that part of the country,
and showed no desire to return. In his quiet lodging in Lambeth he
moved about after working-hours with the facility of a woman, doing
his own cooking, attending to his stocking-heels, and shaping himself
by degrees to a life-long bachelorhood. For this conduct one is
bound to advance the canonical reason that time could not efface from
his heart the image of little Car'line Aspent--and it may be in part
true; but there was also the inference that his was a nature not
greatly dependent upon the ministrations of the other sex for its
comforts.

The fourth year of his residence as a mechanic in London was the year
of the Hyde-Park Exhibition already mentioned, and at the
construction of this huge glass-house, then unexampled in the world's
history, he worked daily. It was an era of great hope and activity
among the nations and industries. Though Hipcroft was, in his small
way, a central man in the movement, he plodded on with his usual
outward placidity. Yet for him, too, the year was destined to have
its surprises, for when the bustle of getting the building ready for
the opening day was past, the ceremonies had been witnessed, and
people were flocking thither from all parts of the globe, he received
a letter from Car'line. Till that day the silence of four years
between himself and Stickleford had never been broken.

She informed her old lover, in an uncertain penmanship which
suggested a trembling hand, of the trouble she had been put to in
ascertaining his address, and then broached the subject which had
prompted her to write. Four years ago, she said with the greatest
delicacy of which she was capable, she had been so foolish as to
refuse him. Her wilful wrong-headedness had since been a grief to
her many times, and of late particularly. As for Mr. Ollamoor, he
had been absent almost as long as Ned--she did not know where. She
would gladly marry Ned now if he were to ask her again, and be a
tender little wife to him till her life's end.

A tide of warm feeling must have surged through Ned Hipcroft's frame
on receipt of this news, if we may judge by the issue.
Unquestionably he loved her still, even if not to the exclusion of
every other happiness. This from his Car'line, she who had been dead
to him these many years, alive to him again as of old, was in itself
a pleasant, gratifying thing. Ned had grown so resigned to, or
satisfied with, his lonely lot, that he probably would not have shown
much jubilation at anything. Still, a certain ardour of
preoccupation, after his first surprise, revealed how deeply her
confession of faith in him had stirred him. Measured and methodical
in his ways, he did not answer the letter that day, nor the next, nor
the next. He was having 'a good think.' When he did answer it,
there was a great deal of sound reasoning mixed in with the
unmistakable tenderness of his reply; but the tenderness itself was
sufficient to reveal that he was pleased with her straightforward
frankness; that the anchorage she had once obtained in his heart was
renewable, if it had not been continuously firm.

He told her--and as he wrote his lips twitched humorously over the
few gentle words of raillery he indited among the rest of his
sentences--that it was all very well for her to come round at this
time of day. Why wouldn't she have him when he wanted her? She had
no doubt learned that he was not married, but suppose his affections
had since been fixed on another? She ought to beg his pardon.
Still, he was not the man to forget her. But considering how he had
been used, and what he had suffered, she could not quite expect him
to go down to Stickleford and fetch her. But if she would come to
him, and say she was sorry, as was only fair; why, yes, he would
marry her, knowing what a good little woman she was at the core. He
added that the request for her to come to him was a less one to make
than it would have been when he first left Stickleford, or even a few
months ago; for the new railway into South Wessex was now open, and
there had just begun to be run wonderfully contrived special trains,
called excursion-trains, on account of the Great Exhibition; so that
she could come up easily alone.

She said in her reply how good it was of him to treat her so
generously, after her hot and cold treatment of him; that though she
felt frightened at the magnitude of the journey, and was never as yet
in a railway-train, having only seen one pass at a distance, she
embraced his offer with all her heart; and would, indeed, own to him
how sorry she was, and beg his pardon, and try to be a good wife
always, and make up for lost time.

The remaining details of when and where were soon settled, Car'line
informing him, for her ready identification in the crowd, that she
would be wearing 'my new sprigged-laylock cotton gown,' and Ned gaily
responding that, having married her the morning after her arrival, he
would make a day of it by taking her to the Exhibition. One early
summer afternoon, accordingly, he came from his place of work, and
hastened towards Waterloo Station to meet her. It was as wet and
chilly as an English June day can occasionally be, but as he waited
on the platform in the drizzle he glowed inwardly, and seemed to have
something to live for again.

The 'excursion-train'--an absolutely new departure in the history of
travel--was still a novelty on the Wessex line, and probably
everywhere. Crowds of people had flocked to all the stations on the
way up to witness the unwonted sight of so long a train's passage,
even where they did not take advantage of the opportunity it offered.
The seats for the humbler class of travellers in these early
experiments in steam-locomotion, were open trucks, without any
protection whatever from the wind and rain; and damp weather having
set in with the afternoon, the unfortunate occupants of these
vehicles were, on the train drawing up at the London terminus, found
to he in a pitiable condition from their long journey; blue-faced,
stiff-necked, sneezing, rain-beaten, chilled to the marrow, many of
the men being hatless; in fact, they resembled people who had been
out all night in an open boat on a rough sea, rather than inland
excursionists for pleasure. The women had in some degree protected
themselves by turning up the skirts of their gowns over their heads,
but as by this arrangement they were additionally exposed about the
hips, they were all more or less in a sorry plight.

In the bustle and crush of alighting forms of both sexes which
followed the entry of the huge concatenation into the station, Ned
Hipcroft soon discerned the slim little figure his eye was in search
of, in the sprigged lilac, as described. She came up to him with a
frightened smile--still pretty, though so damp, weather-beaten, and
shivering from long exposure to the wind.

'O Ned!' she sputtered, 'I--I--' He clasped her in his arms and
kissed her, whereupon she burst into a flood of tears.

'You are wet, my poor dear! I hope you'll not get cold,' he said.
And surveying her and her multifarious surrounding packages, he
noticed that by the hand she led a toddling child--a little girl of
three or so--whose hood was as clammy and tender face as blue as
those of the other travellers.

'Who is this--somebody you know?' asked Ned curiously.

'Yes, Ned. She's mine.'

'Yours?'

'Yes--my own!'

'Your own child?'

'Yes!'

'Well--as God's in--'

'Ned, I didn't name it in my letter, because, you see, it would have
been so hard to explain! I thought that when we met I could tell you
how she happened to be born, so much better than in writing! I hope
you'll excuse it this once, dear Ned, and not scold me, now I've come
so many, many miles!'

'This means Mr. Mop Ollamoor, I reckon!' said Hipcroft, gazing palely
at them from the distance of the yard or two to which he had
withdrawn with a start.

Car'line gasped. 'But he's been gone away for years!' she
supplicated. 'And I never had a young man before! And I was so
onlucky to be catched the first time, though some of the girls down
there go on like anything!'

Ned remained in silence, pondering.

'You'll forgive me, dear Ned?' she added, beginning to sob outright.
'I haven't taken 'ee in after all, because--because you can pack us
back again, if you want to; though 'tis hundreds o' miles, and so
wet, and night a-coming on, and I with no money!'

'What the devil can I do!' Hipcroft groaned.

A more pitiable picture than the pair of helpless creatures presented
was never seen on a rainy day, as they stood on the great, gaunt,
puddled platform, a whiff of drizzle blowing under the roof upon them
now and then; the pretty attire in which they had started from
Stickleford in the early morning bemuddled and sodden, weariness on
their faces, and fear of him in their eyes; for the child began to
look as if she thought she too had done some wrong, remaining in an
appalled silence till the tears rolled down her chubby cheeks.

'What's the matter, my little maid?' said Ned mechanically.

'I do want to go home!' she let out, in tones that told of a bursting
heart. 'And my totties be cold, an' I shan't have no bread an'
butter no more!'

'I don't know what to say to it all!' declared Ned, his own eye moist
as he turned and walked a few steps with his head down; then regarded
them again point blank. From the child escaped troubled breaths and
silently welling tears.

'Want some bread and butter, do 'ee?' he said, with factitious
hardness.

'Ye-e-s!'

'Well, I daresay I can get 'ee a bit! Naturally, you must want some.
And you, too, for that matter, Car'line.'

'I do feel a little hungered. But I can keep it off,' she murmured.

'Folk shouldn't do that,' he said gruffly. . . . 'There come along!'
he caught up the child, as he added, 'You must bide here to-night,
anyhow, I s'pose! What can you do otherwise? I'll get 'ee some tea
and victuals; and as for this job, I'm sure I don't know what to say!
This is the way out.'

They pursued their way, without speaking, to Ned's lodgings, which
were not far off. There he dried them and made them comfortable, and
prepared tea; they thankfully sat down. The ready-made household of
which he suddenly found himself the head imparted a cosy aspect to
his room, and a paternal one to himself. Presently he turned to the
child and kissed her now blooming cheeks; and, looking wistfully at
Car'line, kissed her also.

'I don't see how I can send 'ee back all them miles,' he growled,
'now you've come all the way o' purpose to join me. But you must
trust me, Car'line, and show you've real faith in me. Well, do you
feel better now, my little woman?'

The child nodded, her mouth being otherwise occupied.

'I did trust you, Ned, in coming; and I shall always!'

Thus, without any definite agreement to forgive her, he tacitly
acquiesced in the fate that Heaven had sent him; and on the day of
their marriage (which was not quite so soon as he had expected it
could be, on account of the time necessary for banns) he took her to
the Exhibition when they came back from church, as he had promised.
While standing near a large mirror in one of the courts devoted to
furniture, Car'line started, for in the glass appeared the reflection
of a form exactly resembling Mop Ollamoor's--so exactly, that it
seemed impossible to believe anybody but that artist in person to be
the original. On passing round the objects which hemmed in Ned, her,
and the child from a direct view, no Mop was to be seen. Whether he
were really in London or not at that time was never known; and
Car'line always stoutly denied that her readiness to go and meet Ned
in town arose from any rumour that Mop had also gone thither; which
denial there was no reasonable ground for doubting.

And then the year glided away, and the Exhibition folded itself up
and became a thing of the past. The park trees that had been
enclosed for six months were again exposed to the winds and storms,
and the sod grew green anew. Ned found that Car'line resolved
herself into a very good wife and companion, though she had made
herself what is called cheap to him; but in that she was like another
domestic article, a cheap tea-pot, which often brews better tea than
a dear one. One autumn Hipcroft found himself with but little work
to do, and a prospect of less for the winter. Both being country
born and bred, they fancied they would like to live again in their
natural atmosphere. It was accordingly decided between them that
they should leave the pent-up London lodging, and that Ned should
seek out employment near his native place, his wife and her daughter
staying with Car'line's father during the search for occupation and
an abode of their own.

Tinglings of pleasure pervaded Car'line's spasmodic little frame as
she journeyed down with Ned to the place she had left two or three
years before, in silence and under a cloud. To return to where she
had once been despised, a smiling London wife with a distinct London
accent, was a triumph which the world did not witness every day.

The train did not stop at the petty roadside station that lay nearest
to Stickleford, and the trio went on to Casterbridge. Ned thought it
a good opportunity to make a few preliminary inquiries for employment
at workshops in the borough where he had been known; and feeling cold
from her journey, and it being dry underfoot and only dusk as yet,
with a moon on the point of rising, Car'line and her little girl
walked on toward Stickleford, leaving Ned to follow at a quicker
pace, and pick her up at a certain half-way house, widely known as an
inn.

The woman and child pursued the well-remembered way comfortably
enough, though they were both becoming wearied. In the course of
three miles they had passed Heedless-William's Pond, the familiar
landmark by Bloom's End, and were drawing near the Quiet Woman Inn, a
lone roadside hostel on the lower verge of the Egdon Heath, since and
for many years abolished. In stepping up towards it Car'line heard
more voices within than had formerly been customary at such an hour,
and she learned that an auction of fat stock had been held near the
spot that afternoon. The child would be the better for a rest as
well as herself, she thought, and she entered.

The guests and customers overflowed into the passage, and Car'line
had no sooner crossed the threshold than a man whom she remembered by
sight came forward with glass and mug in his hands towards a friend
leaning against the wall; but, seeing her, very gallantly offered her
a drink of the liquor, which was gin-and-beer hot, pouring her out a
tumblerful and saying, in a moment or two: 'Surely, 'tis little
Car'line Aspent that was--down at Stickleford?'

She assented, and, though she did not exactly want this beverage, she
drank it since it was offered, and her entertainer begged her to come
in farther and sit down. Once within the room she found that all the
persons present were seated close against the walls, and there being
a chair vacant she did the same. An explanation of their position
occurred the next moment. In the opposite corner stood Mop, rosining
his bow and looking just the same as ever. The company had cleared
the middle of the room for dancing, and they were about to dance
again. As she wore a veil to keep off the wind she did not think he
had recognized her, or could possibly guess the identity of the
child; and to her satisfied surprise she found that she could
confront him quite calmly--mistress of herself in the dignity her
London life had given her. Before she had quite emptied her glass
the dance was called, the dancers formed in two lines, the music
sounded, and the figure began.

Then matters changed for Car'line. A tremor quickened itself to life
in her, and her hand so shook that she could hardly set down her
glass. It was not the dance nor the dancers, but the notes of that
old violin which thrilled the London wife, these having still all the
witchery that she had so well known of yore, and under which she had
used to lose her power of independent will. How it all came back!
There was the fiddling figure against the wall; the large, oily, mop-
like head of him, and beneath the mop the face with closed eyes.

After the first moments of paralyzed reverie the familiar tune in the
familiar rendering made her laugh and shed tears simultaneously.
Then a man at the bottom of the dance, whose partner had dropped
away, stretched out his hand and beckoned to her to take the place.
She did not want to dance; she entreated by signs to be left where
she was, but she was entreating of the tune and its player rather
than of the dancing man. The saltatory tendency which the fiddler
and his cunning instrument had ever been able to start in her was
seizing Car'line just as it had done in earlier years, possibly
assisted by the gin-and-beer hot. Tired as she was she grasped her
little girl by the hand, and plunging in at the bottom of the figure,
whirled about with the rest. She found that her companions were
mostly people of the neighbouring hamlets and farms--Bloom's End,
Mellstock, Lewgate, and elsewhere; and by degrees she was recognized
as she convulsively danced on, wishing that Mop would cease and let
her heart rest from the aching he caused, and her feet also.

After long and many minutes the dance ended, when she was urged to
fortify herself with more gin-and-beer; which she did, feeling very
weak and overpowered with hysteric emotion. She refrained from
unveiling, to keep Mop in ignorance of her presence, if possible.
Several of the guests having left, Car'line hastily wiped her lips
and also turned to go; but, according to the account of some who
remained, at that very moment a five-handed reel was proposed, in
which two or three begged her to join.

She declined on the plea of being tired and having to walk to
Stickleford, when Mop began aggressively tweedling 'My Fancy-Lad,' in
D major, as the air to which the reel was to be footed. He must have
recognized her, though she did not know it, for it was the strain of
all seductive strains which she was least able to resist--the one he
had played when she was leaning over the bridge at the date of their
first acquaintance. Car'line stepped despairingly into the middle of
the room with the other four.

Reels were resorted to hereabouts at this time by the more robust
spirits, for the reduction of superfluous energy which the ordinary
figure-dances were not powerful enough to exhaust. As everybody
knows, or does not know, the five reelers stood in the form of a
cross, the reel being performed by each line of three alternately,
the persons who successively came to the middle place dancing in both
directions. Car'line soon found herself in this place, the axis of
the whole performance, and could not get out of it, the tune turning
into the first part without giving her opportunity. And now she
began to suspect that Mop did know her, and was doing this on
purpose, though whenever she stole a glance at him his closed eyes
betokened obliviousness to everything outside his own brain. She
continued to wend her way through the figure of 8 that was formed by
her course, the fiddler introducing into his notes the wild and
agonizing sweetness of a living voice in one too highly wrought; its
pathos running high and running low in endless variation, projecting
through her nerves excruciating spasms, a sort of blissful torture.
The room swam, the tune was endless; and in about a quarter of an
hour the only other woman in the figure dropped out exhausted, and
sank panting on a bench.

The reel instantly resolved itself into a four-handed one. Car'line
would have given anything to leave off; but she had, or fancied she
had, no power, while Mop played such tunes; and thus another ten
minutes slipped by, a haze of dust now clouding the candles, the
floor being of stone, sanded. Then another dancer fell out--one of
the men--and went into the passage, in a frantic search for liquor.
To turn the figure into a three-handed reel was the work of a second,
Mop modulating at the same time into 'The Fairy Dance,' as better
suited to the contracted movement, and no less one of those foods of
love which, as manufactured by his bow, had always intoxicated her.

In a reel for three there was no rest whatever, and four or five
minutes were enough to make her remaining two partners, now
thoroughly blown, stamp their last bar and, like their predecessors,
limp off into the next room to get something to drink. Car'line,
half-stifled inside her veil, was left dancing alone, the apartment
now being empty of everybody save herself, Mop, and their little
girl.

She flung up the veil, and cast her eyes upon him, as if imploring
him to withdraw himself and his acoustic magnetism from the
atmosphere. Mop opened one of his own orbs, as though for the first
time, fixed it peeringly upon her, and smiling dreamily, threw into
his strains the reserve of expression which he could not afford to
waste on a big and noisy dance. Crowds of little chromatic
subtleties, capable of drawing tears from a statue, proceeded
straightway from the ancient fiddle, as if it were dying of the
emotion which had been pent up within it ever since its banishment
from some Italian city where it first took shape and sound. There
was that in the look of Mop's one dark eye which said: 'You cannot
leave off, dear, whether you would or no!' and it bred in her a
paroxysm of desperation that defied him to tire her down.

She thus continued to dance alone, defiantly as she thought, but in
truth slavishly and abjectly, subject to every wave of the melody,
and probed by the gimlet-like gaze of her fascinator's open eye;
keeping up at the same time a feeble smile in his face, as a feint to
signify it was still her own pleasure which led her on. A terrified
embarrassment as to what she could say to him if she were to leave
off, had its unrecognized share in keeping her going. The child, who
was beginning to be distressed by the strange situation, came up and
said: 'Stop, mother, stop, and let's go home!' as she seized
Car'line's hand.

Suddenly Car'line sank staggering to the floor; and rolling over on
her face, prone she remained. Mop's fiddle thereupon emitted an
elfin shriek of finality; stepping quickly down from the nine-gallon
beer-cask which had formed his rostrum, he went to the little girl,
who disconsolately bent over her mother.

The guests who had gone into the back-room for liquor and change of
air, hearing something unusual, trooped back hitherward, where they
endeavoured to revive poor, weak Car'line by blowing her with the
bellows and opening the window. Ned, her husband, who had been
detained in Casterbridge, as aforesaid, came along the road at this
juncture, and hearing excited voices through the open casement, and
to his great surprise, the mention of his wife's name, he entered
amid the rest upon the scene. Car'line was now in convulsions,
weeping violently, and for a long time nothing could be done with
her. While he was sending for a cart to take her onward to
Stickleford Hipcroft anxiously inquired how it had all happened; and
then the assembly explained that a fiddler formerly known in the
locality had lately revisited his old haunts, and had taken upon
himself without invitation to play that evening at the inn.

Ned demanded the fiddler's name, and they said Ollamoor.

'Ah!' exclaimed Ned, looking round him. 'Where is he, and where--
where's my little girl?'

Ollamoor had disappeared, and so had the child. Hipcroft was in
ordinary a quiet and tractable fellow, but a determination which was
to be feared settled in his face now. 'Blast him!' he cried. 'I'll
beat his skull in for'n, if I swing for it to-morrow!'

He had rushed to the poker which lay on the hearth, and hastened down
the passage, the people following. Outside the house, on the other
side of the highway, a mass of dark heath-land rose sullenly upward
to its not easily accessible interior, a ravined plateau, whereon
jutted into the sky, at the distance of a couple of miles, the fir-
woods of Mistover backed by the Yalbury coppices--a place of
Dantesque gloom at this hour, which would have afforded secure hiding
for a battery of artillery, much less a man and a child.

Some other men plunged thitherward with him, and more went along the
road. They were gone about twenty minutes altogether, returning
without result to the inn. Ned sat down in the settle, and clasped
his forehead with his hands.

'Well--what a fool the man is, and hev been all these years, if he
thinks the child his, as a' do seem to!' they whispered. 'And
everybody else knowing otherwise!'

'No, I don't think 'tis mine!' cried Ned hoarsely, as he looked up
from his hands. 'But she is mine, all the same! Ha'n't I nussed
her? Ha'n't I fed her and teached her? Ha'n't I played wi' her? O,
little Carry--gone with that rogue--gone!'

'You ha'n't lost your mis'ess, anyhow,' they said to console him.
'She's throwed up the sperrits, and she is feeling better, and she's
more to 'ee than a child that isn't yours.'

'She isn't! She's not so particular much to me, especially now she's
lost the little maid! But Carry's everything!'

'Well, ver' like you'll find her to-morrow.'

'Ah--but shall I? Yet he CAN'T hurt her--surely he can't! Well--
how's Car'line now? I am ready. Is the cart here?'

She was lifted into the vehicle, and they sadly lumbered on toward
Stickleford. Next day she was calmer; but the fits were still upon
her; and her will seemed shattered. For the child she appeared to
show singularly little anxiety, though Ned was nearly distracted. It
was nevertheless quite expected that the impish Mop would restore the
lost one after a freak of a day or two; but time went on, and neither
he nor she could be heard of, and Hipcroft murmured that perhaps he
was exercising upon her some unholy musical charm, as he had done
upon Car'line herself. Weeks passed, and still they could obtain no
clue either to the fiddler's whereabouts or the girl's; and how he
could have induced her to go with him remained a mystery.

Then Ned, who had obtained only temporary employment in the
neighbourhood, took a sudden hatred toward his native district, and a
rumour reaching his ears through the police that a somewhat similar
man and child had been seen at a fair near London, he playing a
violin, she dancing on stilts, a new interest in the capital took
possession of Hipcroft with an intensity which would scarcely allow
him time to pack before returning thither.

He did not, however, find the lost one, though he made it the entire
business of his over-hours to stand about in by-streets in the hope
of discovering her, and would start up in the night, saying, 'That
rascal's torturing her to maintain him!' To which his wife would
answer peevishly, 'Don't 'ee raft yourself so, Ned! You prevent my
getting a bit o' rest! He won't hurt her!' and fall asleep again.

That Carry and her father had emigrated to America was the general
opinion; Mop, no doubt, finding the girl a highly desirable companion
when he had trained her to keep him by her earnings as a dancer.
There, for that matter, they may be performing in some capacity now,
though he must be an old scamp verging on threescore-and-ten, and she
a woman of four-and-forty.

May 1893,






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

Short stories
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