eBooks Cube
 
CHAPTER 29.


At this hour Lucetta was bounding along the road to Port-
Bredy just as Elizabeth had announced. That she had chosen
for her afternoon walk the road along which she had returned
to Casterbridge three hours earlier in a carriage was
curious--if anything should be called curious in
concatenations of phenomena wherein each is known to have
its accounting cause. It was the day of the chief market--
Saturday--and Farfrae for once had been missed from his
corn-stand in the dealers' room. Nevertheless, it was known
that he would be home that night--"for Sunday," as
Casterbridge expressed it.

Lucetta, in continuing her walk, had at length reached the
end of the ranked trees which bordered the highway in this
and other directions out of the town. This end marked a
mile; and here she stopped.

The spot was a vale between two gentle acclivities, and the
road, still adhering to its Roman foundation, stretched
onward straight as a surveyor's line till lost to sight on
the most distant ridge. There was neither hedge nor tree in
the prospect now, the road clinging to the stubby expanse of
corn-land like a strip to an undulating garment. Near her
was a barn--the single building of any kind within her
horizon.

She strained her eyes up the lessening road, but nothing
appeared thereon--not so much as a speck. She sighed one
word--"Donald!" and turned her face to the town for retreat.

Here the case was different. A single figure was
approaching her--Elizabeth-Jane's.

Lucetta, in spite of her loneliness, seemed a little vexed.
Elizabeth's face, as soon as she recognized her friend,
shaped itself into affectionate lines while yet beyond
speaking distance. "I suddenly thought I would come and
meet you," she said, smiling.

Lucetta's reply was taken from her lips by an unexpected
diversion. A by-road on her right hand descended from the
fields into the highway at the point where she stood, and
down the track a bull was rambling uncertainly towards her
and Elizabeth, who, facing the other way, did not observe
him.

In the latter quarter of each year cattle were at once the
mainstay and the terror of families about Casterbridge and
its neighbourhood, where breeding was carried on with
Abrahamic success. The head of stock driven into and out of
the town at this season to be sold by the local auctioneer
was very large; and all these horned beasts, in travelling
to and fro, sent women and children to shelter as nothing
else could do. In the main the animals would have walked
along quietly enough; but the Casterbridge tradition was
that to drive stock it was indispensable that hideous cries,
coupled with Yahoo antics and gestures, should be used,
large sticks flourished, stray dogs called in, and in
general everything done that was likely to infuriate the
viciously disposed and terrify the mild. Nothing was
commoner than for a house-holder on going out of his parlour
to find his hall or passage full of little children,
nursemaids, aged women, or a ladies' school, who apologized
for their presence by saying, "A bull passing down street
from the sale."

Lucetta and Elizabeth regarded the animal in doubt, he
meanwhile drawing vaguely towards them. It was a large
specimen of the breed, in colour rich dun, though disfigured
at present by splotches of mud about his seamy sides. His
horns were thick and tipped with brass; his two nostrils
like the Thames Tunnel as seen in the perspective toys of
yore. Between them, through the gristle of his nose, was a
stout copper ring, welded on, and irremovable as Gurth's
collar of brass. To the ring was attached an ash staff
about a yard long, which the bull with the motions of his
head flung about like a flail.

It was not till they observed this dangling stick that the
young women were really alarmed; for it revealed to them
that the bull was an old one, too savage to be driven, which
had in some way escaped, the staff being the means by which
the drover controlled him and kept his horns at arms'
length.

They looked round for some shelter or hiding-place, and
thought of the barn hard by. As long as they had kept their
eyes on the bull he had shown some deference in his manner
of approach; but no sooner did they turn their backs to seek
the barn than he tossed his head and decided to thoroughly
terrify them. This caused the two helpless girls to run
wildly, whereupon the bull advanced in a deliberate charge.

The barn stood behind a green slimy pond, and it was closed
save as to one of the usual pair of doors facing them, which
had been propped open by a hurdle-stick, and for this
opening they made. The interior had been cleared by a
recent bout of threshing except at one end, where there was
a stack of dry clover. Elizabeth-Jane took in the
situation. "We must climb up there," she said.

But before they had even approached it they heard the bull
scampering through the pond without, and in a second he
dashed into the barn, knocking down the hurdle-stake in
passing; the heavy door slammed behind him; and all three
were imprisoned in the barn together. The mistaken creature
saw them, and stalked towards the end of the barn into which
they had fled. The girls doubled so adroitly that their
pursuer was against the wall when the fugitives were already
half way to the other end. By the time that his length
would allow him to turn and follow them thither they had
crossed over; thus the pursuit went on, the hot air from his
nostrils blowing over them like a sirocco, and not a moment
being attainable by Elizabeth or Lucetta in which to open
the door. What might have happened had their situation
continued cannot be said; but in a few moments a rattling of
the door distracted their adversary's attention, and a man
appeared. He ran forward towards the leading-staff, seized
it, and wrenched the animal's head as if he would snap it
off. The wrench was in reality so violent that the thick
neck seemed to have lost its stiffness and to become half-
paralyzed, whilst the nose dropped blood. The premeditated
human contrivance of the nose-ring was too cunning for
impulsive brute force, and the creature flinched.

The man was seen in the partial gloom to be large-framed and
unhesitating. He led the bull to the door, and the light
revealed Henchard. He made the bull fast without, and re-
entered to the succour of Lucetta; for he had not perceived
Elizabeth, who had climbed on to the clover-heap. Lucetta
was hysterical, and Henchard took her in his arms and
carried her to the door.

"You--have saved me!" she cried, as soon as she could speak.

"I have returned your kindness," he responded tenderly.
"You once saved me."

"How--comes it to be you--you?" she asked, not heeding his
reply.

"I came out here to look for you. I have been wanting to
tell you something these two or three days; but you have
been away, and I could not. Perhaps you cannot talk now?"

"Oh--no! Where is Elizabeth?"

"Here am I!" cried the missing one cheerfully; and without
waiting for the ladder to be placed she slid down the face
of the clover-stack to the floor.

Henchard supporting Lucetta on one side, and Elizabeth-Jane
on the other, they went slowly along the rising road. They
had reached the top and were descending again when Lucetta,
now much recovered, recollected that she had dropped her
muff in the barn.

"I'll run back," said Elizabeth-Jane. "I don't mind it at
all, as I am not tired as you are." She thereupon hastened
down again to the barn, the others pursuing their way.

Elizabeth soon found the muff, such an article being by no
means small at that time. Coming out she paused to look for
a moment at the bull, now rather to be pitied with his
bleeding nose, having perhaps rather intended a practical
joke than a murder. Henchard had secured him by jamming the
staff into the hinge of the barn-door, and wedging it there
with a stake. At length she turned to hasten onward after
her contemplation, when she saw a green-and-black gig
approaching from the contrary direction, the vehicle being
driven by Farfrae.

His presence here seemed to explain Lucetta's walk that way.
Donald saw her, drew up, and was hastily made acquainted
with what had occurred. At Elizabeth-Jane mentioning how
greatly Lucetta had been jeopardized, he exhibited an
agitation different in kind no less than in intensity from
any she had seen in him before. He became so absorbed in
the circumstance that he scarcely had sufficient knowledge
of what he was doing to think of helping her up beside him.

"She has gone on with Mr. Henchard, you say?" he inquired at
last.

"Yes. He is taking her home. They are almost there by this
time."

"And you are sure she can get home?"

Elizabeth-Jane was quite sure.

"Your stepfather saved her?"

"Entirely."

Farfrae checked his horse's pace; she guessed why. He was
thinking that it would be best not to intrude on the other
two just now. Henchard had saved Lucetta, and to provoke a
possible exhibition of her deeper affection for himself was
as ungenerous as it was unwise.

The immediate subject of their talk being exhausted she felt
more embarrassed at sitting thus beside her past lover; but
soon the two figures of the others were visible at the
entrance to the town. The face of the woman was frequently
turned back, but Farfrae did not whip on the horse. When
these reached the town walls Henchard and his companion had
disappeared down the street; Farfrae set down Elizabeth-Jane
on her expressing a particular wish to alight there, and
drove round to the stables at the back of his lodgings.

On this account he entered the house through his garden, and
going up to his apartments found them in a particularly
disturbed state, his boxes being hauled out upon the
landing, and his bookcase standing in three pieces. These
phenomena, however, seemed to cause him not the least
surprise. "When will everything be sent up?" he said to the
mistress of the house, who was superintending.

"I am afraid not before eight, sir," said she. "You see we
wasn't aware till this morning that you were going to move,
or we could have been forwarder."

"A--well, never mind, never mind!" said Farfrae cheerily.
"Eight o'clock will do well enough if it be not later. Now,
don't ye be standing here talking, or it will be twelve, I
doubt." Thus speaking he went out by the front door and up
the street.

During this interval Henchard and Lucetta had had
experiences of a different kind. After Elizabeth's
departure for the muff the corn-merchant opened himself
frankly, holding her hand within his arm, though she would
fain have withdrawn it. "Dear Lucetta, I have been very,
very anxious to see you these two or three days," he said,
"ever since I saw you last! I have thought over the way I
got your promise that night. You said to me, 'If I were a
man I should not insist.' That cut me deep. I felt that
there was some truth in it. I don't want to make you
wretched; and to marry me just now would do that as nothing
else could--it is but too plain. Therefore I agree to an
indefinite engagement--to put off all thought of marriage
for a year or two."

"But--but--can I do nothing of a different kind?" said
Lucetta. "I am full of gratitude to you--you have saved my
life. And your care of me is like coals of fire on my head!
I am a monied person now. Surely I can do something in
return for your goodness--something practical?"

Henchard remained in thought. He had evidently not expected
this. "There is one thing you might do, Lucetta," he said.
"But not exactly of that kind."

"Then of what kind is it?" she asked with renewed misgiving.

"I must tell you a secret to ask it.--You may have heard
that I have been unlucky this year? I did what I have never
done before--speculated rashly; and I lost. That's just put
me in a strait.

"And you would wish me to advance some money?"

"No, no!" said Henchard, almost in anger. "I'm not the man
to sponge on a woman, even though she may be so nearly my
own as you. No, Lucetta; what you can do is this and it
would save me. My great creditor is Grower, and it is at
his hands I shall suffer if at anybody's; while a
fortnight's forbearance on his part would be enough to allow
me to pull through. This may be got out of him in one way--
that you would let it be known to him that you are my
intended--that we are to be quietly married in the next
fortnight.--Now stop, you haven't heard all! Let him have
this story, without, of course, any prejudice to the fact
that the actual engagement between us is to be a long one.
Nobody else need know: you could go with me to Mr. Grower
and just let me speak to 'ee before him as if we were on
such terms. We'll ask him to keep it secret. He will
willingly wait then. At the fortnight's end I shall be able
to face him; and I can coolly tell him all is postponed
between us for a year or two. Not a soul in the town need
know how you've helped me. Since you wish to be of use,
there's your way."

It being now what the people called the "pinking in" of the
day, that is, the quarter-hour just before dusk, he did not
at first observe the result of his own words upon her.

"If it were anything else," she began, and the dryness of
her lips was represented in her voice.

"But it is such a little thing!" he said, with a deep
reproach. "Less than you have offered--just the beginning
of what you have so lately promised! I could have told him
as much myself, but he would not have believed me."

"It is not because I won't--it is because I absolutely
can't," she said, with rising distress.

"You are provoking!" he burst out. "It is enough to make me
force you to carry out at once what you have promised."

"I cannot!" she insisted desperately.

"Why? When I have only within these few minutes released you
from your promise to do the thing offhand."

"Because--he was a witness!"

"Witness? Of what?

"If I must tell you----. Don't, don't upbraid me!"

"Well! Let's hear what you mean?"

"Witness of my marriage--Mr. Grower was!"

"Marriage?"

"Yes. With Mr. Farfrae. O Michael! I am already his wife.
We were married this week at Port-Bredy. There were reasons
against our doing it here. Mr. Grower was a witness because
he happened to be at Port-Bredy at the time."

Henchard stood as if idiotized. She was so alarmed at his
silence that she murmured something about lending him
sufficient money to tide over the perilous fortnight.

"Married him?" said Henchard at length. "My good--what,
married him whilst--bound to marry me?"

"It was like this," she explained, with tears in her eyes
and quavers in her voice; "don't--don't be cruel! I loved
him so much, and I thought you might tell him of the past--
and that grieved me! And then, when I had promised you, I
learnt of the rumour that you had--sold your first wife at a
fair like a horse or cow! How could I keep my promise after
hearing that? I could not risk myself in your hands; it
would have been letting myself down to take your name after
such a scandal. But I knew I should lose Donald if I did
not secure him at once--for you would carry out your threat
of telling him of our former acquaintance, as long as there
was a chance of keeping me for yourself by doing so. But
you will not do so now, will you, Michael? for it is too
late to separate us."

The notes of St. Peter's bells in full peal had been wafted
to them while he spoke, and now the genial thumping of the
town band, renowned for its unstinted use of the drum-stick,
throbbed down the street.

"Then this racket they are making is on account of it, I
suppose?" said he.

"Yes--I think he has told them, or else Mr. Grower
has....May I leave you now? My--he was detained at Port-
Bredy to-day, and sent me on a few hours before him."

"Then it is HIS WIFE'S life I have saved this
afternoon."

"Yes--and he will be for ever grateful to you."

"I am much obliged to him....O you false woman!" burst from
Henchard. "You promised me!"

"Yes, yes! But it was under compulsion, and I did not know
all your past----"

"And now I've a mind to punish you as you deserve! One word
to this bran-new husband of how you courted me, and your
precious happiness is blown to atoms!"

"Michael--pity me, and be generous!"

"You don't deserve pity! You did; but you don't now."

"I'll help you to pay off your debt."

"A pensioner of Farfrae's wife--not I! Don't stay with me
longer--I shall say something worse. Go home!"

She disappeared under the trees of the south walk as the
band came round the corner, awaking the echoes of every
stock and stone in celebration of her happiness. Lucetta
took no heed, but ran up the back street and reached her own
home unperceived.



The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy
Category:
English Classics
Book Review:
Thomas Hardy’s masterpiece "The Mayor of Casterbridge" proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that “character is destiny”, and in writing it Hardy proved that a tragedy can be one of the most enjoyable forms of literature. As in ancient Greek tragedies, the protagonist of
[...more]
Nabou.com: the big site