eBooks Cube
 
Chapter 9 : Love Leads a Shrewd Man into Strategy


Reddlemen of the old school are now but seldom seen.
Since the introduction of railways Wessex farmers have
managed to do without these Mephistophelian visitants,
and the bright pigment so largely used by shepherds in
preparing sheep for the fair is obtained by other routes.
Even those who yet survive are losing the poetry of existence
which characterized them when the pursuit of the trade
meant periodical journeys to the pit whence the material
was dug, a regular camping out from month to month,
except in the depth of winter, a peregrination among farms
which could be counted by the hundred, and in spite of this
Arab existence the preservation of that respectability
which is insured by the never-failing production of a
well-lined purse.

Reddle spreads its lively hues over everything it lights on,
and stamps unmistakably, as with the mark of Cain,
any person who has handled it half an hour.

A child's first sight of a reddleman was an epoch in
his life. That blood-coloured figure was a sublimation
of all the horrid dreams which had afflicted the juvenile
spirit since imagination began. "The reddleman is coming
for you!" had been the formulated threat of Wessex mothers
for many generations. He was successfully supplanted
for a while, at the beginning of the present century,
by Buonaparte; but as process of time rendered the latter
personage stale and ineffective the older phrase resumed
its early prominence. And now the reddleman has in his
turn followed Buonaparte to the land of worn-out bogeys,
and his place is filled by modern inventions.

The reddleman lived like a gipsy; but gipsies he scorned.
He was about as thriving as travelling basket and mat makers;
but he had nothing to do with them. He was more decently
born and brought up than the cattledrovers who passed
and repassed him in his wanderings; but they merely nodded
to him. His stock was more valuable than that of pedlars;
but they did not think so, and passed his cart with eyes
straight ahead. He was such an unnatural colour to look
at that the men of roundabouts and waxwork shows seemed
gentlemen beside him; but he considered them low company,
and remained aloof. Among all these squatters and folks
of the road the reddleman continually found himself; yet he
was not of them. His occupation tended to isolate him,
and isolated he was mostly seen to be.

It was sometimes suggested that reddlemen were criminals
for whose misdeeds other men wrongfully suffered--that in
escaping the law they had not escaped their own consciences,
and had taken to the trade as a lifelong penance.
Else why should they have chosen it? In the present case
such a question would have been particularly apposite.
The reddleman who had entered Egdon that afternoon was
an instance of the pleasing being wasted to form the
ground-work of the singular, when an ugly foundation would
have done just as well for that purpose. The one point
that was forbidding about this reddleman was his colour.
Freed from that he would have been as agreeable a specimen
of rustic manhood as one would often see. A keen observer
might have been inclined to think--which was, indeed,
partly the truth--that he had relinquished his proper station
in life for want of interest in it. Moreover, after looking
at him one would have hazarded the guess that good nature,
and an acuteness as extreme as it could be without
verging on craft, formed the framework of his character.

While he darned the stocking his face became rigid
with thought. Softer expressions followed this, and then
again recurred the tender sadness which had sat upon
him during his drive along the highway that afternoon.
Presently his needle stopped. He laid down the stocking,
arose from his seat, and took a leathern pouch from a hook
in the corner of the van. This contained among other
articles a brown-paper packet, which, to judge from the
hinge-like character of its worn folds, seemed to have
been carefully opened and closed a good many times.
He sat down on a three-legged milking stool that formed
the only seat in the van, and, examining his packet
by the light of a candle, took thence an old letter
and spread it open. The writing had originally been
traced on white paper, but the letter had now assumed
a pale red tinge from the accident of its situation;
and the black strokes of writing thereon looked like the
twigs of a winter hedge against a vermilion sunset.
The letter bore a date some two years previous to that time,
and was signed "Thomasin Yeobright." It ran as follows:--


DEAR DIGGORY VENN,--The question you put when you
overtook me coming home from Pond-close gave me such
a surprise that I am afraid I did not make you exactly
understand what I meant. Of course, if my aunt had
not met me I could have explained all then at once,
but as it was there was no chance. I have been quite
uneasy since, as you know I do not wish to pain you,
yet I fear I shall be doing so now in contradicting
what I seemed to say then. I cannot, Diggory, marry you,
or think of letting you call me your sweetheart.
I could not, indeed, Diggory. I hope you will not
much mind my saying this, and feel in a great pain.
It makes me very sad when I think it may, for I like you
very much, and I always put you next to my cousin Clym
in my mind. There are so many reasons why we cannot
be married that I can hardly name them all in a letter.
I did not in the least expect that you were going to
speak on such a thing when you followed me, because I
had never thought of you in the sense of a lover at all.
You must not becall me for laughing when you spoke;
you mistook when you thought I laughed at you as a
foolish man. I laughed because the idea was so odd,
and not at you at all. The great reason with my own
personal self for not letting you court me is, that I
do not feel the things a woman ought to feel who consents
to walk with you with the meaning of being your wife.
It is not as you think, that I have another in my mind,
for I do not encourage anybody, and never have in my life.
Another reason is my aunt. She would not, I know, agree to it,
even if I wished to have you. She likes you very well,
but she will want me to look a little higher than a small
dairy-farmer, and marry a professional man. I hope you
will not set your heart against me for writing plainly,
but I felt you might try to see me again, and it is better
that we should not meet. I shall always think of you
as a good man, and be anxious for your well-doing. I send
this by Jane Orchard's little maid,--And remain Diggory,
your faithful friend,

THOMASIN YEOBRIGHT.

To MR. VENN, Dairy-farmer.


Since the arrival of that letter, on a certain autumn
morning long ago, the reddleman and Thomasin had not met
till today. During the interval he had shifted his position
even further from hers than it had originally been,
by adopting the reddle trade; though he was really
in very good circumstances still. Indeed, seeing that
his expenditure was only one-fourth of his income,
he might have been called a prosperous man.

Rejected suitors take to roaming as naturally as unhived bees;
and the business to which he had cynically devoted himself
was in many ways congenial to Venn. But his wanderings,
by mere stress of old emotions, had frequently taken
an Egdon direction, though he never intruded upon her
who attracted him thither. To be in Thomasin's heath,
and near her, yet unseen, was the one ewe-lamb of pleasure
left to him.

Then came the incident of that day, and the reddleman,
still loving her well, was excited by this accidental
service to her at a critical juncture to vow an active
devotion to her cause, instead of, as hitherto, sighing and
holding aloof. After what had happened it was impossible
that he should not doubt the honesty of Wildeve's intentions.
But her hope was apparently centred upon him; and dismissing
his regrets Venn determined to aid her to be happy in
her own chosen way. That this way was, of all others,
the most distressing to himself, was awkward enough;
but the reddleman's love was generous.

His first active step in watching over Thomasin's interests
was taken about seven o'clock the next evening and was
dictated by the news which he had learnt from the sad boy.
That Eustacia was somehow the cause of Wildeve's carelessness
in relation to the marriage had at once been Venn's
conclusion on hearing of the secret meeting between them.
It did not occur to his mind that Eustacia's love signal
to Wildeve was the tender effect upon the deserted beauty
of the intelligence which her grandfather had brought home.
His instinct was to regard her as a conspirator against
rather than as an antecedent obstacle to Thomasin's happiness.

During the day he had been exceedingly anxious to learn
the condition of Thomasin, but he did not venture
to intrude upon a threshold to which he was a stranger,
particularly at such an unpleasant moment as this.
He had occupied his time in moving with his ponies
and load to a new point in the heath, eastward to his
previous station; and here he selected a nook with a
careful eye to shelter from wind and rain, which seemed
to mean that his stay there was to be a comparatively
extended one. After this he returned on foot some part
of the way that he had come; and, it being now dark,
he diverged to the left till he stood behind a holly bush
on the edge of a pit not twenty yards from Rainbarrow.

He watched for a meeting there, but he watched in vain.
Nobody except himself came near the spot that night.

But the loss of his labour produced little effect upon
the reddleman. He had stood in the shoes of Tantalus,
and seemed to look upon a certain mass of disappointment
as the natural preface to all realizations, without which
preface they would give cause for alarm.

The same hour the next evening found him again at the
same place; but Eustacia and Wildeve, the expected trysters,
did not appear.

He pursued precisely the same course yet four nights longer,
and without success. But on the next, being the day-week
of their previous meeting, he saw a female shape floating
along the ridge and the outline of a young man ascending
from the valley. They met in the little ditch encircling
the tumulus--the original excavation from which it
had been thrown up by the ancient British people.

The reddleman, stung with suspicion of wrong to Thomasin,
was aroused to strategy in a moment. He instantly left
the bush and crept forward on his hands and knees.
When he had got as close as he might safely venture without
discovery he found that, owing to a cross-wind, the
conversation of the trysting pair could not be overheard.

Near him, as in divers places about the heath, were areas
strewn with large turves, which lay edgeways and upside
down awaiting removal by Timothy Fairway, previous to
the winter weather. He took two of these as he lay,
and dragged them over him till one covered his head
and shoulders, the other his back and legs. The reddleman
would now have been quite invisible, even by daylight;
the turves, standing upon him with the heather upwards,
looked precisely as if they were growing. He crept
along again, and the turves upon his back crept with him.
Had he approached without any covering the chances
are that he would not have been perceived in the dusk;
approaching thus, it was as though he burrowed underground.
In this manner he came quite close to where the two
were standing.

"Wish to consult me on the matter?" reached his ears
in the rich, impetuous accents of Eustacia Vye.
"Consult me? It is an indignity to me to talk so--I won't
bear it any longer!" She began weeping. "I have loved you,
and have shown you that I loved you, much to my regret;
and yet you can come and say in that frigid way that you
wish to consult with me whether it would not be better
to marry Thomasin. Better--of course it would be.
Marry her--she is nearer to your own position in life than
I am!"

"Yes, yes; that's very well," said Wildeve peremptorily.
"But we must look at things as they are. Whatever blame
may attach to me for having brought it about,
Thomasin's position is at present much worse than yours.
I simply tell you that I am in a strait."

"But you shall not tell me! You must see that it is only
harassing me. Damon, you have not acted well; you have
sunk in my opinion. You have not valued my courtesy--the
courtesy of a lady in loving you--who used to think
of far more ambitious things. But it was Thomasin's fault.

She won you away from me, and she deserves to suffer for it.
Where is she staying now? Not that I care, nor where I
am myself. Ah, if I were dead and gone how glad she would
be! Where is she, I ask?"

"Thomasin is now staying at her aunt's shut up in a bedroom,
and keeping out of everybody's sight," he said indifferently.

"I don't think you care much about her even now,"
said Eustacia with sudden joyousness, "for if you did you
wouldn't talk so coolly about her. Do you talk so coolly
to her about me? Ah, I expect you do! Why did you originally
go away from me? I don't think I can ever forgive you,
except on one condition, that whenever you desert me,
you come back again, sorry that you served me so."

"I never wish to desert you."

"I do not thank you for that. I should hate it to be
all smooth. Indeed, I think I like you to desert me
a little once now and then. Love is the dismallest thing
where the lover is quite honest. O, it is a shame to
say so; but it is true!" She indulged in a little laugh.
"My low spirits begin at the very idea. Don't you offer
me tame love, or away you go!"

"I wish Tamsie were not such a confoundedly good little woman,"
said Wildeve, "so that I could be faithful to you without
injuring a worthy person. It is I who am the sinner
after all; I am not worth the little finger of either of you."

"But you must not sacrifice yourself to her from
any sense of justice," replied Eustacia quickly.
"If you do not love her it is the most merciful thing
in the long run to leave her as she is. That's always
the best way. There, now I have been unwomanly, I suppose.
When you have left me I am always angry with myself
for things that I have said to you."

Wildeve walked a pace or two among the heather without replying.
The pause was filled up by the intonation of a pollard
thorn a little way to windward, the breezes filtering
through its unyielding twigs as through a strainer.
It was as if the night sang dirges with clenched teeth.

She continued, half sorrowfully, "Since meeting you last,
it has occurred to me once or twice that perhaps it
was not for love of me you did not marry her. Tell me,
Damon--I'll try to bear it. Had I nothing whatever to do
with the matter?"

"Do you press me to tell?"

"Yes, I must know. I see I have been too ready to believe
in my own power."

"Well, the immediate reason was that the license would
not do for the place, and before I could get another she
ran away. Up to that point you had nothing to do with it.
Since then her aunt has spoken to me in a tone which I
don't at all like."

"Yes, yes! I am nothing in it--I am nothing in it.
You only trifle with me. Heaven, what can I, Eustacia Vye,
be made of to think so much of you!"

"Nonsense; do not be so passionate....Eustacia, how we
roved among these bushes last year, when the hot days
had got cool, and the shades of the hills kept us almost
invisible in the hollows!"

She remained in moody silence till she said, "Yes; and
how I used to laugh at you for daring to look up to me!
But you have well made me suffer for that since."

"Yes, you served me cruelly enough until I thought I had
found someone fairer than you. A blessed find for me, Eustacia."

"Do you still think you found somebody fairer?"

"Sometimes I do, sometimes I don't. The scales are balanced
so nicely that a feather would turn them."

"But don't you really care whether I meet you or whether
I don't?" she said slowly.

"I care a little, but not enough to break my rest,"
replied the young man languidly. "No, all that's past.
I find there are two flowers where I thought there
was only one. Perhaps there are three, or four, or any
number as good as the first....Mine is a curious fate.
Who would have thought that all this could happen
to me?"

She interrupted with a suppressed fire of which either
love or anger seemed an equally possible issue, "Do you
love me now?"

"Who can say?"

"Tell me; I will know it!"

"I do, and I do not," said he mischievously. "That is,
I have my times and my seasons. One moment you are too tall,
another moment you are too do-nothing, another too melancholy,
another too dark, another I don't know what, except--that you
are not the whole world to me that you used to be, my dear.
But you are a pleasant lady to know and nice to meet,
and I dare say as sweet as ever--almost."

Eustacia was silent, and she turned from him, till she said,
in a voice of suspended mightiness, "I am for a walk,
and this is my way."

"Well, I can do worse than follow you."

"You know you can't do otherwise, for all your moods
and changes!" she answered defiantly. "Say what you will;
try as you may; keep away from me all that you can--you
will never forget me. You will love me all your life long.
You would jump to marry me!"

"So I would!" said Wildeve. "Such strange thoughts
as I've had from time to time, Eustacia; and they come
to me this moment. You hate the heath as much as ever;
that I know."

"I do," she murmured deeply. "'Tis my cross, my shame,
and will be my death!"

"I abhor it too," said he. "How mournfully the wind
blows round us now!"

She did not answer. Its tone was indeed solemn and pervasive.
Compound utterances addressed themselves to their senses, and it
was possible to view by ear the features of the neighbourhood.
Acoustic pictures were returned from the darkened scenery;
they could hear where the tracts of heather began and ended;
where the furze was growing stalky and tall; where it had
been recently cut; in what direction the fir-clump lay,
and how near was the pit in which the hollies grew;
for these differing features had their voices no less
than their shapes and colours.

"God, how lonely it is!" resumed Wildeve. "What are
picturesque ravines and mists to us who see nothing else?"
Why should we stay here? Will you go with me to America?
I have kindred in Wisconsin."

"That wants consideration."

"It seems impossible to do well here, unless one were
a wild bird or a landscape-painter. Well?"

"Give me time," she softly said, taking his hand.
"America is so far away. Are you going to walk with me
a little way?"

As Eustacia uttered the latter words she retired from
the base of the barrow, and Wildeve followed her,
so that the reddleman could hear no more.

He lifted the turves and arose. Their black figures sank
and disappeared from against the sky. They were as two
horns which the sluggish heath had put forth from its crown,
like a mollusc, and had now again drawn in.

The reddleman's walk across the vale, and over into the
next where his cart lay, was not sprightly for a slim young
fellow of twenty-four. His spirit was perturbed to aching.
The breezes that blew around his mouth in that walk
carried off upon them the accents of a commination.

He entered the van, where there was a fire in a stove.
Without lighting his candle he sat down at once on
the three-legged stool, and pondered on what he had
seen and heard touching that still-loved one of his.
He uttered a sound which was neither sigh nor sob, but was
even more indicative than either of a troubled mind.

"My Tamsie," he whispered heavily. "What can be done? Yes,
I will see that Eustacia Vye."





The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy
Category:
General Fiction
Nabou.com: the big site