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CHAPTER 4.


Henchard's wife acted for the best, but she had involved
herself in difficulties. A hundred times she had been upon
the point of telling her daughter Elizabeth-Jane the true
story of her life, the tragical crisis of which had been the
transaction at Weydon Fair, when she was not much older than
the girl now beside her. But she had refrained. An
innocent maiden had thus grown up in the belief that the
relations between the genial sailor and her mother were the
ordinary ones that they had always appeared to be. The risk
of endangering a child's strong affection by disturbing
ideas which had grown with her growth was to Mrs. Henchard
too fearful a thing to contemplate. It had seemed, indeed
folly to think of making Elizabeth-Jane wise.

But Susan Henchard's fear of losing her dearly loved
daughter's heart by a revelation had little to do with any
sense of wrong-doing on her own part. Her simplicity--the
original ground of Henchard's contempt for her--had allowed
her to live on in the conviction that Newson had acquired a
morally real and justifiable right to her by his purchase--
though the exact bearings and legal limits of that right
were vague. It may seem strange to sophisticated minds that
a sane young matron could believe in the seriousness of such
a transfer; and were there not numerous other instances of
the same belief the thing might scarcely be credited. But
she was by no means the first or last peasant woman who had
religiously adhered to her purchaser, as too many rural
records show.

The history of Susan Henchard's adventures in the interim
can be told in two or three sentences. Absolutely helpless
she had been taken off to Canada where they had lived
several years without any great worldly success, though she
worked as hard as any woman could to keep their cottage
cheerful and well-provided. When Elizabeth-Jane was about
twelve years old the three returned to England, and settled
at Falmouth, where Newson made a living for a few years as
boatman and general handy shoreman.

He then engaged in the Newfoundland trade, and it was during
this period that Susan had an awakening. A friend to whom
she confided her history ridiculed her grave acceptance of
her position; and all was over with her peace of mind. When
Newson came home at the end of one winter he saw that the
delusion he had so carefully sustained had vanished for
ever.

There was then a time of sadness, in which she told him her
doubts if she could live with him longer. Newson left home
again on the Newfoundland trade when the season came round.
The vague news of his loss at sea a little later on solved a
problem which had become torture to her meek conscience.
She saw him no more.

Of Henchard they heard nothing. To the liege subjects of
Labour, the England of those days was a continent, and a
mile a geographical degree.

Elizabeth-Jane developed early into womanliness. One day a
month or so after receiving intelligence of Newson's death
off the Bank of Newfoundland, when the girl was about
eighteen, she was sitting on a willow chair in the cottage
they still occupied, working twine nets for the fishermen.
Her mother was in a back corner of the same room engaged in
the same labour, and dropping the heavy wood needle she was
filling she surveyed her daughter thoughtfully. The sun
shone in at the door upon the young woman's head and hair,
which was worn loose, so that the rays streamed into its
depths as into a hazel copse. Her face, though somewhat wan
and incomplete, possessed the raw materials of beauty in a
promising degree. There was an under-handsomeness in it,
struggling to reveal itself through the provisional curves
of immaturity, and the casual disfigurements that resulted
from the straitened circumstances of their lives. She was
handsome in the bone, hardly as yet handsome in the flesh.
She possibly might never be fully handsome, unless the
carking accidents of her daily existence could be evaded
before the mobile parts of her countenance had settled to
their final mould.

The sight of the girl made her mother sad--not vaguely but
by logical inference. They both were still in that strait-
waistcoat of poverty from which she had tried so many times
to be delivered for the girl's sake. The woman had long
perceived how zealously and constantly the young mind of her
companion was struggling for enlargement; and yet now, in
her eighteenth year, it still remained but little unfolded.
The desire--sober and repressed--of Elizabeth-Jane's heart
was indeed to see, to hear, and to understand. How could
she become a woman of wider knowledge, higher repute--
"better," as she termed it--this was her constant inquiry of
her mother. She sought further into things than other girls
in her position ever did, and her mother groaned as she felt
she could not aid in the search.

The sailor, drowned or no, was probably now lost to them;
and Susan's staunch, religious adherence to him as her
husband in principle, till her views had been disturbed by
enlightenment, was demanded no more. She asked herself
whether the present moment, now that she was a free woman
again, were not as opportune a one as she would find in a
world where everything had been so inopportune, for making a
desperate effort to advance Elizabeth. To pocket her pride
and search for the first husband seemed, wisely or not, the
best initiatory step. He had possibly drunk himself into
his tomb. But he might, on the other hand, have had too
much sense to do so; for in her time with him he had been
given to bouts only, and was not a habitual drunkard.

At any rate, the propriety of returning to him, if he lived,
was unquestionable. The awkwardness of searching for him
lay in enlightening Elizabeth, a proceeding which her mother
could not endure to contemplate. She finally resolved to
undertake the search without confiding to the girl her
former relations with Henchard, leaving it to him if they
found him to take what steps he might choose to that end.
This will account for their conversation at the fair and the
half-informed state at which Elizabeth was led onward.

In this attitude they proceeded on their journey, trusting
solely to the dim light afforded of Henchard's whereabouts
by the furmity woman. The strictest economy was
indispensable. Sometimes they might have been seen on foot,
sometimes on farmers' waggons, sometimes in carriers' vans;
and thus they drew near to Casterbridge. Elizabeth-Jane
discovered to her alarm that her mother's health was not
what it once had been, and there was ever and anon in her
talk that renunciatory tone which showed that, but for the
girl, she would not be very sorry to quit a life she was
growing thoroughly weary of.

It was on a Friday evening, near the middle of September and
just before dusk, that they reached the summit of a hill
within a mile of the place they sought. There were high
banked hedges to the coach-road here, and they mounted upon
the green turf within, and sat down. The spot commanded a
full view of the town and its environs.

"What an old-fashioned place it seems to be!" said
Elizabeth-Jane, while her silent mother mused on other
things than topography. "It is huddled all together; and it
is shut in by a square wall of trees, like a plot of garden
ground by a box-edging."

Its squareness was, indeed, the characteristic which most
struck the eye in this antiquated borough, the borough of
Casterbridge--at that time, recent as it was, untouched by
the faintest sprinkle of modernism. It was compact as a box
of dominoes. It had no suburbs--in the ordinary sense.
Country and town met at a mathematical line.

To birds of the more soaring kind Casterbridge must have
appeared on this fine evening as a mosaic-work of subdued
reds, browns, greys, and crystals, held together by a
rectangular frame of deep green. To the level eye of
humanity it stood as an indistinct mass behind a dense
stockade of limes and chestnuts, set in the midst of miles
of rotund down and concave field. The mass became gradually
dissected by the vision into towers, gables, chimneys, and
casements, the highest glazings shining bleared and
bloodshot with the coppery fire they caught from the belt of
sunlit cloud in the west.

From the centre of each side of this tree-bound square ran
avenues east, west, and south into the wide expanse of corn-
land and coomb to the distance of a mile or so. It was by
one of these avenues that the pedestrians were about to
enter. Before they had risen to proceed two men passed
outside the hedge, engaged in argumentative conversation.

"Why, surely," said Elizabeth, as they receded, "those men
mentioned the name of Henchard in their talk--the name of
our relative?"

"I thought so too," said Mrs. Newson.

"That seems a hint to us that he is still here."

"Yes."

"Shall I run after them, and ask them about him----"

"No, no, no! Not for the world just yet. He may be in the
workhouse, or in the stocks, for all we know."

"Dear me--why should you think that, mother?"

"'Twas just something to say--that's all! But we must make
private inquiries."

Having sufficiently rested they proceeded on their way at
evenfall. The dense trees of the avenue rendered the road
dark as a tunnel, though the open land on each side was
still under a faint daylight, in other words, they passed
down a midnight between two gloamings. The features of the
town had a keen interest for Elizabeth's mother, now that
the human side came to the fore. As soon as they had
wandered about they could see that the stockade of gnarled
trees which framed in Casterbridge was itself an avenue,
standing on a low green bank or escarpment, with a ditch yet
visible without. Within the avenue and bank was a wall more
or less discontinuous, and within the wall were packed the
abodes of the burghers.

Though the two women did not know it these external features
were but the ancient defences of the town, planted as a
promenade.

The lamplights now glimmered through the engirdling trees,
conveying a sense of great smugness and comfort inside, and
rendering at the same time the unlighted country without
strangely solitary and vacant in aspect, considering its
nearness to life. The difference between burgh and
champaign was increased, too, by sounds which now reached
them above others--the notes of a brass band. The
travellers returned into the High Street, where there were
timber houses with overhanging stories, whose small-paned
lattices were screened by dimity curtains on a drawing-
string, and under whose bargeboards old cobwebs waved in the
breeze. There were houses of brick-nogging, which derived
their chief support from those adjoining. There were slate
roofs patched with tiles, and tile roofs patched with slate,
with occasionally a roof of thatch.

The agricultural and pastoral character of the people upon
whom the town depended for its existence was shown by the
class of objects displayed in the shop windows. Scythes,
reap-hooks, sheep-shears, bill-hooks, spades, mattocks, and
hoes at the iron-monger's; bee-hives, butter-firkins,
churns, milking stools and pails, hay-rakes, field-flagons,
and seed-lips at the cooper's; cart-ropes and plough-harness
at the saddler's; carts, wheel-barrows, and mill-gear at the
wheelwright's and machinist's, horse-embrocations at the
chemist's; at the glover's and leather-cutter's, hedging-
gloves, thatchers' knee-caps, ploughmen's leggings,
villagers' pattens and clogs.

They came to a grizzled church, whose massive square tower
rose unbroken into the darkening sky, the lower parts being
illuminated by the nearest lamps sufficiently to show how
completely the mortar from the joints of the stonework had
been nibbled out by time and weather, which had planted in
the crevices thus made little tufts of stone-crop and grass
almost as far up as the very battlements. From this tower
the clock struck eight, and thereupon a bell began to toll
with a peremptory clang. The curfew was still rung in
Casterbridge, and it was utilized by the inhabitants as a
signal for shutting their shops. No sooner did the deep
notes of the bell throb between the house-fronts than a
clatter of shutters arose through the whole length of the
High Street. In a few minutes business at Casterbridge was
ended for the day.

Other clocks struck eight from time to time--one gloomily
from the gaol, another from the gable of an almshouse, with
a preparative creak of machinery, more audible than the note
of the bell; a row of tall, varnished case-clocks from the
interior of a clock-maker's shop joined in one after another
just as the shutters were enclosing them, like a row of
actors delivering their final speeches before the fall of
the curtain; then chimes were heard stammering out the
Sicilian Mariners' Hymn; so that chronologists of the
advanced school were appreciably on their way to the next
hour before the whole business of the old one was
satisfactorily wound up.

In an open space before the church walked a woman with her
gown-sleeves rolled up so high that the edge of her
underlinen was visible, and her skirt tucked up through her
pocket hole. She carried a load under her arm from which
she was pulling pieces of bread, and handing them to some
other women who walked with her, which pieces they nibbled
critically. The sight reminded Mrs. Henchard-Newson and her
daughter that they had an appetite; and they inquired of the
woman for the nearest baker's.

"Ye may as well look for manna-food as good bread in
Casterbridge just now," she said, after directing them.
"They can blare their trumpets and thump their drums, and
have their roaring dinners"--waving her hand towards a point
further along the street, where the brass band could be seen
standing in front of an illuminated building--"but we must
needs be put-to for want of a wholesome crust. There's less
good bread than good beer in Casterbridge now."

"And less good beer than swipes," said a man with his hands
in his pockets.

"How does it happen there's no good bread?" asked Mrs.
Henchard.

"Oh, 'tis the corn-factor--he's the man that our millers and
bakers all deal wi', and he has sold 'em growed wheat, which
they didn't know was growed, so they SAY, till the dough
ran all over the ovens like quicksilver; so that the loaves
be as fiat as toads, and like suet pudden inside. I've been
a wife, and I've been a mother, and I never see such
unprincipled bread in Casterbridge as this before.--But you
must be a real stranger here not to know what's made all the
poor volks' insides plim like blowed bladders this week?"

"I am," said Elizabeth's mother shyly.

Not wishing to be observed further till she knew more of her
future in this place, she withdrew with her daughter from
the speaker's side. Getting a couple of biscuits at the
shop indicated as a temporary substitute for a meal, they
next bent their steps instinctively to where the music was
playing.



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
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