The cottage which Michael Henchard hired for his wife Susan
under her name of Newson--in pursuance of their plan--was in
the upper or western part of the town, near the Roman wall,
and the avenue which overshadowed it. The evening sun seemed
to shine more yellowly there than anywhere else this autumn--
stretching its rays, as the hours grew later, under the
lowest sycamore boughs, and steeping the ground-floor of the
dwelling, with its green shutters, in a substratum of
radiance which the foliage screened from the upper parts.
Beneath these sycamores on the town walls could be seen from
the sitting-room the tumuli and earth forts of the distant
uplands; making it altogether a pleasant spot, with the
usual touch of melancholy that a past-marked prospect lends.
As soon as the mother and daughter were comfortably
installed, with a white-aproned servant and all complete,
Henchard paid them a visit, and remained to tea. During the
entertainment Elizabeth was carefully hoodwinked by the very
general tone of the conversation that prevailed--a
proceeding which seemed to afford some humour to Henchard,
though his wife was not particularly happy in it. The visit
was repeated again and again with business-like
determination by the Mayor, who seemed to have schooled
himself into a course of strict mechanical rightness towards
this woman of prior claim, at any expense to the later one
and to his own sentiments.
One afternoon the daughter was not indoors when Henchard
came, and he said drily, "This is a very good opportunity
for me to ask you to name the happy day, Susan."
The poor woman smiled faintly; she did not enjoy
pleasantries on a situation into which she had entered
solely for the sake of her girl's reputation. She liked
them so little, indeed, that there was room for wonder why
she had countenanced deception at all, and had not bravely
let the girl know her history. But the flesh is weak; and
the true explanation came in due course.
"O Michael!" she said, "I am afraid all this is taking up
your time and giving trouble--when I did not expect any such
thing!" And she looked at him and at his dress as a man of
affluence, and at the furniture he had provided for the
room--ornate and lavish to her eyes.
"Not at all," said Henchard, in rough benignity. "This is
only a cottage--it costs me next to nothing. And as to
taking up my time"--here his red and black visage kindled
with satisfaction--"I've a splendid fellow to superintend my
business now--a man whose like I've never been able to lay
hands on before. I shall soon be able to leave everything
to him, and have more time to call my own than I've had for
these last twenty years."
Henchard's visits here grew so frequent and so regular that
it soon became whispered, and then openly discussed in
Casterbridge that the masterful, coercive Mayor of the town
was raptured and enervated by the genteel widow Mrs. Newson.
His well-known haughty indifference to the society of
womankind, his silent avoidance of converse with the sex,
contributed a piquancy to what would otherwise have been an
unromantic matter enough. That such a poor fragile woman
should be his choice was inexplicable, except on the ground
that the engagement was a family affair in which sentimental
passion had no place; for it was known that they were
related in some way. Mrs. Henchard was so pale that the
boys called her "The Ghost." Sometimes Henchard overheard
this epithet when they passed together along the Walks--as
the avenues on the walls were named--at which his face would
darken with an expression of destructiveness towards the
speakers ominous to see; but he said nothing.
He pressed on the preparations for his union, or rather
reunion, with this pale creature in a dogged, unflinching
spirit which did credit to his conscientiousness. Nobody
would have conceived from his outward demeanour that there
was no amatory fire or pulse of romance acting as stimulant
to the bustle going on in his gaunt, great house; nothing
but three large resolves--one, to make amends to his
neglected Susan, another, to provide a comfortable home for
Elizabeth-Jane under his paternal eye; and a third, to
castigate himself with the thorns which these restitutory
acts brought in their train; among them the lowering of his
dignity in public opinion by marrying so comparatively
humble a woman.
Susan Henchard entered a carriage for the first time in her
life when she stepped into the plain brougham which drew up
at the door on the wedding-day to take her and Elizabeth-
Jane to church. It was a windless morning of warm November
rain, which floated down like meal, and lay in a powdery
form on the nap of hats and coats. Few people had gathered
round the church door though they were well packed within.
The Scotchman, who assisted as groomsman, was of course the
only one present, beyond the chief actors, who knew the true
situation of the contracting parties. He, however, was too
inexperienced, too thoughtful, too judicial, too strongly
conscious of the serious side of the business, to enter into
the scene in its dramatic aspect. That required the special
genius of Christopher Coney, Solomon Longways, Buzzford, and
their fellows. But they knew nothing of the secret; though,
as the time for coming out of church drew on, they gathered
on the pavement adjoining, and expounded the subject
according to their lights.
"'Tis five-and-forty years since I had my settlement in this
here town," said Coney; "but daze me if I ever see a man
wait so long before to take so little! There's a chance even
for thee after this, Nance Mockridge." The remark was
addressed to a woman who stood behind his shoulder--the same
who had exhibited Henchard's bad bread in public when
Elizabeth and her mother entered Casterbridge.
"Be cust if I'd marry any such as he, or thee either,"
replied that lady. "As for thee, Christopher, we know what
ye be, and the less said the better. And as for he--well,
there--(lowering her voice) 'tis said 'a was a poor parish
'prentice--I wouldn't say it for all the world--but 'a was a
poor parish 'prentice, that began life wi' no more belonging
to 'en than a carrion crow."
"And now he's worth ever so much a minute," murmured
Longways. "When a man is said to be worth so much a minute,
he's a man to be considered!"
Turning, he saw a circular disc reticulated with creases,
and recognized the smiling countenance of the fat woman who
had asked for another song at the Three Mariners. "Well,
Mother Cuxsom," he said, "how's this? Here's Mrs. Newson, a
mere skellinton, has got another husband to keep her, while
a woman of your tonnage have not."
"I have not. Nor another to beat me....Ah, yes, Cuxsom's
gone, and so shall leather breeches!"
"Yes; with the blessing of God leather breeches shall go."
"'Tisn't worth my old while to think of another husband,"
continued Mrs. Cuxsom. "And yet I'll lay my life I'm as
respectable born as she."
"True; your mother was a very good woman--I can mind her.
She were rewarded by the Agricultural Society for having
begot the greatest number of healthy children without parish
assistance, and other virtuous marvels."
"'Twas that that kept us so low upon ground--that great
"Ay. Where the pigs be many the wash runs thin."
"And dostn't mind how mother would sing, Christopher?"
continued Mrs. Cuxsom, kindling at the retrospection; "and
how we went with her to the party at Mellstock, do ye mind?--
at old Dame Ledlow's, farmer Shinar's aunt, do ye mind?--
she we used to call Toad-skin, because her face were so
yaller and freckled, do ye mind?"
"I do, hee-hee, I do!" said Christopher Coney.
"And well do I--for I was getting up husband-high at that
time--one-half girl, and t'other half woman, as one may say.
And canst mind"--she prodded Solomon's shoulder with her
finger-tip, while her eyes twinkled between the crevices of
their lids--"canst mind the sherry-wine, and the zilver-
snuffers, and how Joan Dummett was took bad when we were
coming home, and Jack Griggs was forced to carry her through
the mud; and how 'a let her fall in Dairyman Sweet-apple's
cow-barton, and we had to clane her gown wi' grass--never
such a mess as a' were in?"
"Ay--that I do--hee-hee, such doggery as there was in them
ancient days, to be sure! Ah, the miles I used to walk then;
and now I can hardly step over a furrow!"
Their reminiscences were cut short by the appearance of the
reunited pair--Henchard looking round upon the idlers with
that ambiguous gaze of his, which at one moment seemed to
mean satisfaction, and at another fiery disdain.
"Well--there's a difference between 'em, though he do call
himself a teetotaller," said Nance Mockridge. "She'll wish
her cake dough afore she's done of him. There's a blue-
beardy look about 'en; and 'twill out in time."
"Stuff--he's well enough! Some folk want their luck
buttered. If I had a choice as wide as the ocean sea I
wouldn't wish for a better man. A poor twanking woman like
her--'tis a godsend for her, and hardly a pair of jumps or
night-rail to her name."
The plain little brougham drove off in the mist, and the
idlers dispersed. "Well, we hardly know how to look at
things in these times!" said Solomon. "There was a man
dropped down dead yesterday, not so very many miles from
here; and what wi' that, and this moist weather, 'tis scarce
worth one's while to begin any work o' consequence to-day.
I'm in such a low key with drinking nothing but small table
ninepenny this last week or two that I shall call and warm
up at the Mar'ners as I pass along."
"I don't know but that I may as well go with 'ee, Solomon,"
said Christopher; "I'm as clammy as a cockle-snail."