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Chapter 10 : A Desperate Attempt at Persuasion


The next morning, at the time when the height of the
sun appeared very insignificant from any part of the
heath as compared with the altitude of Rainbarrow,
and when all the little hills in the lower levels
were like an archipelago in a fog-formed Aegean,
the reddleman came from the brambled nook which he
had adopted as his quarters and ascended the slopes of Mistover Knap.

Though these shaggy hills were apparently so solitary,
several keen round eyes were always ready on such a
wintry morning as this to converge upon a passer-by.
Feathered species sojourned here in hiding which would
have created wonder if found elsewhere. A bustard
haunted the spot, and not many years before this five
and twenty might have been seen in Egdon at one time.
Marsh-harriers looked up from the valley by Wildeve's.
A cream-coloured courser had used to visit this hill,
a bird so rare that not more than a dozen have ever been
seen in England; but a barbarian rested neither night
nor day till he had shot the African truant, and after
that event cream-coloured coursers thought fit to enter
Egdon no more.

A traveller who should walk and observe any of these
visitants as Venn observed them now could feel himself
to be in direct communication with regions unknown to man.
Here in front of him was a wild mallard--just arrived from
the home of the north wind. The creature brought within him
an amplitude of Northern knowledge. Glacial catastrophes,
snowstorm episodes, glittering auroral effects, Polaris in
the zenith, Franklin underfoot--the category of his commonplaces
was wonderful. But the bird, like many other philosophers,
seemed as he looked at the reddleman to think that a present
moment of comfortable reality was worth a decade of memories.

Venn passed on through these towards the house of the
isolated beauty who lived up among them and despised them.
The day was Sunday; but as going to church, except to be
married or buried, was exceptional at Egdon, this made
little difference. He had determined upon the bold stroke
of asking for an interview with Miss Vye--to attack her
position as Thomasin's rival either by art or by storm,
showing therein, somewhat too conspicuously, the want of
gallantry characteristic of a certain astute sort of men,
from clowns to kings. The great Frederick making war
on the beautiful Archduchess, Napoleon refusing terms
to the beautiful Queen of Prussia, were not more dead
to difference of sex than the reddleman was, in his
peculiar way, in planning the displacement of Eustacia.

To call at the captain's cottage was always more or
less an undertaking for the inferior inhabitants.
Though occasionally chatty, his moods were erratic,
and nobody could be certain how he would behave at any
particular moment. Eustacia was reserved, and lived very much
to herself. Except the daughter of one of the cotters,
who was their servant, and a lad who worked in the garden
and stable, scarcely anyone but themselves ever entered
the house. They were the only genteel people of the
district except the Yeobrights, and though far from rich,
they did not feel that necessity for preserving a friendly
face towards every man, bird, and beast which influenced
their poorer neighbours.

When the reddleman entered the garden the old man was
looking through his glass at the stain of blue sea in
the distant landscape, the little anchors on his buttons
twinkling in the sun. He recognized Venn as his companion
on the highway, but made no remark on that circumstance,
merely saying, "Ah, reddleman--you here? Have a glass
of grog?"

Venn declined, on the plea of it being too early, and stated
that his business was with Miss Vye. The captain surveyed
him from cap to waistcoat and from waistcoat to leggings
for a few moments, and finally asked him to go indoors.

Miss Vye was not to be seen by anybody just then;
and the reddleman waited in the window-bench of the kitchen,
his hands hanging across his divergent knees, and his cap
hanging from his hands.

"I suppose the young lady is not up yet?" he presently
said to the servant.

"Not quite yet. Folks never call upon ladies at this
time of day."

"Then I'll step outside," said Venn. "If she is willing
to see me, will she please send out word, and I'll come in."

The reddleman left the house and loitered on the
hill adjoining. A considerable time elapsed, and no
request for his presence was brought. He was beginning
to think that his scheme had failed, when he beheld the
form of Eustacia herself coming leisurely towards him.
A sense of novelty in giving audience to that singular
figure had been sufficient to draw her forth.

She seemed to feel, after a bare look at Diggory Venn,
that the man had come on a strange errand, and that he was
not so mean as she had thought him; for her close approach
did not cause him to writhe uneasily, or shift his feet,
or show any of those little signs which escape an ingenuous
rustic at the advent of the uncommon in womankind.
On his inquiring if he might have a conversation with
her she replied, "Yes, walk beside me," and continued
to move on.

Before they had gone far it occurred to the perspicacious
reddleman that he would have acted more wisely
by appearing less unimpressionable, and he resolved
to correct the error as soon as he could find opportunity.

"I have made so bold, miss, as to step across and tell
you some strange news which has come to my ears about
that man."

"Ah! what man?"

He jerked his elbow to the southeast--the direction
of the Quiet Woman.

Eustacia turned quickly to him. "Do you mean Mr. Wildeve?"

"Yes, there is trouble in a household on account of him,
and I have come to let you know of it, because I believe
you might have power to drive it away."

"I? What is the trouble?"

"It is quite a secret. It is that he may refuse to marry
Thomasin Yeobright after all."

Eustacia, though set inwardly pulsing by his words,
was equal to her part in such a drama as this.
She replied coldly, "I do not wish to listen to this,
and you must not expect me to interfere."

"But, miss, you will hear one word?"

"I cannot. I am not interested in the marriage, and even
if I were I could not compel Mr. Wildeve to do my bidding."

"As the only lady on the heath I think you might," said Venn
with subtle indirectness. "This is how the case stands.
Mr. Wildeve would marry Thomasin at once, and make all
matters smooth, if so be there were not another woman
in the case. This other woman is some person he has
picked up with, and meets on the heath occasionally,
I believe. He will never marry her, and yet through
her he may never marry the woman who loves him dearly.
Now, if you, miss, who have so much sway over us menfolk,
were to insist that he should treat your young neighbour
Tamsin with honourable kindness and give up the other woman,
he would perhaps do it, and save her a good deal of misery."

"Ah, my life!" said Eustacia, with a laugh which unclosed
her lips so that the sun shone into her mouth as into
a tulip, and lent it a similar scarlet fire. "You think
too much of my influence over menfolk indeed, reddleman.
If I had such a power as you imagine I would go straight
and use it for the good of anybody who has been kind
to me--which Thomasin Yeobright has not particularly,
to my knowledge."

"Can it be that you really don't know of it--how much
she had always thought of you?"

"I have never heard a word of it. Although we live
only two miles apart I have never been inside her aunt's
house in my life."

The superciliousness that lurked in her manner told Venn
that thus far he had utterly failed. He inwardly sighed
and felt it necessary to unmask his second argument.

"Well, leaving that out of the question, 'tis in your power,
I assure you, Miss Vye, to do a great deal of good
to another woman."

She shook her head.

"Your comeliness is law with Mr. Wildeve. It is law
with all men who see 'ee. They say, 'This well-
favoured lady coming--what's her name? How handsome!'
Handsomer than Thomasin Yeobright," the reddleman persisted,
saying to himself, "God forgive a rascal for lying!" And she
was handsomer, but the reddleman was far from thinking so.
There was a certain obscurity in Eustacia's beauty,
and Venn's eye was not trained. In her winter dress, as now,
she was like the tiger-beetle, which, when observed in
dull situations, seems to be of the quietest neutral colour,
but under a full illumination blazes with dazzling splendour.

Eustacia could not help replying, though conscious that she
endangered her dignity thereby. "Many women are lovelier
than Thomasin," she said, "so not much attaches to that."

The reddleman suffered the wound and went on: "He is a man
who notices the looks of women, and you could twist him
to your will like withywind, if you only had the mind."

"Surely what she cannot do who has been so much with him
I cannot do living up here away from him."

The reddleman wheeled and looked her in the face.
"Miss Vye!" he said.

"Why do you say that--as if you doubted me?" She spoke faintly,
and her breathing was quick. "The idea of your speaking in
that tone to me!" she added, with a forced smile of hauteur.
"What could have been in your mind to lead you to speak like that?"

"Miss Vye, why should you make believe that you don't know
this man?--I know why, certainly. He is beneath you,
and you are ashamed."

"You are mistaken. What do you mean?"

The reddleman had decided to play the card of truth.
"I was at the meeting by Rainbarrow last night and heard
every word," he said. "The woman that stands between
Wildeve and Thomasin is yourself."

It was a disconcerting lift of the curtain, and the
mortification of Candaules' wife glowed in her.
The moment had arrived when her lip would tremble in spite
of herself, and when the gasp could no longer be kept down.

"I am unwell," she said hurriedly. "No--it is not that--I
am not in a humour to hear you further. Leave me, please."

"I must speak, Miss Vye, in spite of paining you.
What I would put before you is this. However it may come
about--whether she is to blame, or you--her case is without
doubt worse than yours. Your giving up Mr. Wildeve will
be a real advantage to you, for how could you marry him?
Now she cannot get off so easily--everybody will blame
her if she loses him. Then I ask you--not because her
right is best, but because her situation is worst--to
give him up to her."

"No--I won't, I won't!" she said impetuously, quite forgetful
of her previous manner towards the reddleman as an underling.
"Nobody has ever been served so! It was going on well--I
will not be beaten down--by an inferior woman like her.
It is very well for you to come and plead for her,
but is she not herself the cause of all her own trouble?
Am I not to show favour to any person I may choose without
asking permission of a parcel of cottagers? She has come
between me and my inclination, and now that she finds
herself rightly punished she gets you to plead for her!"

"Indeed," said Venn earnestly, "she knows nothing whatever
about it. It is only I who ask you to give him up.
It will be better for her and you both. People will say
bad things if they find out that a lady secretly meets
a man who has ill-used another woman."

"I have NOT injured her--he was mine before he was
hers! He came back--because--because he liked me best!"
she said wildly. "But I lose all self-respect in talking
to you. What am I giving way to!"

"I can keep secrets," said Venn gently. "You need not fear.
I am the only man who knows of your meetings with him.
There is but one thing more to speak of, and then I will
be gone. I heard you say to him that you hated living
here--that Egdon Heath was a jail to you."

"I did say so. There is a sort of beauty in the scenery,
I know; but it is a jail to me. The man you mention does
not save me from that feeling, though he lives here.
I should have cared nothing for him had there been a better
person near."

The reddleman looked hopeful; after these words from
her his third attempt seemed promising. "As we have
now opened our minds a bit, miss," he said, "I'll tell
you what I have got to propose. Since I have taken
to the reddle trade I travel a good deal, as you know."

She inclined her head, and swept round so that her eyes
rested in the misty vale beneath them.

"And in my travels I go near Budmouth. Now Budmouth is
a wonderful place--wonderful--a great salt sheening sea
bending into the land like a bow--thousands of gentlepeople
walking up and down--bands of music playing--officers
by sea and officers by land walking among the rest--out
of every ten folks you meet nine of 'em in love."

"I know it," she said disdainfully. "I know Budmouth
better than you. I was born there. My father came to
be a military musician there from abroad. Ah, my soul,
Budmouth! I wish I was there now."

The reddleman was surprised to see how a slow fire could
blaze on occasion. "If you were, miss," he replied,
"in a week's time you would think no more of Wildeve
than of one of those he'th-croppers that we see yond.
Now, I could get you there."

"How?" said Eustacia, with intense curiosity in her
heavy eyes.

"My uncle has been for five and twenty years the trusty
man of a rich widow-lady who has a beautiful house
facing the sea. This lady has become old and lame,
and she wants a young company-keeper to read and sing
to her, but can't get one to her mind to save her life,
though she've advertised in the papers, and tried half
a dozen. She would jump to get you, and Uncle would make
it all easy."

"I should have to work, perhaps?"

"No, not real work--you'd have a little to do, such as reading
and that. You would not be wanted till New Year's Day."

"I knew it meant work," she said, drooping to languor again.

"I confess there would be a trifle to do in the way of
amusing her; but though idle people might call it work,
working people would call it play. Think of the company
and the life you'd lead, miss; the gaiety you'd see,
and the gentleman you'd marry. My uncle is to inquire
for a trustworthy young lady from the country, as she don't
like town girls."

"It is to wear myself out to please her! and I won't go.
O, if I could live in a gay town as a lady should,
and go my own ways, and do my own doings, I'd give
the wrinkled half of my life! Yes, reddleman, that would I."

"Help me to get Thomasin happy, miss, and the chance
shall be yours," urged her companion.

"Chance--'tis no chance," she said proudly. "What can
a poor man like you offer me, indeed?--I am going indoors.
I have nothing more to say. Don't your horses want feeding,
or your reddlebags want mending, or don't you want
to find buyers for your goods, that you stay idling here
like this?"

Venn spoke not another word. With his hands behind him
he turned away, that she might not see the hopeless
disappointment in his face. The mental clearness and power
he had found in this lonely girl had indeed filled his manner
with misgiving even from the first few minutes of close
quarters with her. Her youth and situation had led him
to expect a simplicity quite at the beck of his method.
But a system of inducement which might have carried weaker
country lasses along with it had merely repelled Eustacia.
As a rule, the word Budmouth meant fascination on Egdon.
That Royal port and watering place, if truly mirrored in the
minds of the heathfolk, must have combined, in a charming
and indescribable manner a Carthaginian bustle of building
with Tarentine luxuriousness and Baian health and beauty.
Eustacia felt little less extravagantly about the place;
but she would not sink her independence to get there.

When Diggory Venn had gone quite away, Eustacia walked
to the bank and looked down the wild and picturesque
vale towards the sun, which was also in the direction
of Wildeve's. The mist had now so far collapsed that
the tips of the trees and bushes around his house
could just be discerned, as if boring upwards through
a vast white cobweb which cloaked them from the day.
There was no doubt that her mind was inclined thitherward;
indefinitely, fancifully--twining and untwining about
him as the single object within her horizon on which
dreams might crystallize. The man who had begun by
being merely her amusement, and would never have been
more than her hobby but for his skill in deserting
her at the right moments, was now again her desire.
Cessation in his love-making had revivified her love.
Such feeling as Eustacia had idly given to Wildeve was dammed
into a flood by Thomasin. She had used to tease Wildeve,
but that was before another had favoured him. Often a drop
of irony into an indifferent situation renders the whole piquant.

"I will never give him up--never!" she said impetuously.

The reddleman's hint that rumour might show her to disadvantage
had no permanent terror for Eustacia. She was as unconcerned
at that contingency as a goddess at a lack of linen.
This did not originate in inherent shamelessness,
but in her living too far from the world to feel the impact
of public opinion. Zenobia in the desert could hardly have
cared what was said about her at Rome. As far as social
ethics were concerned Eustacia approached the savage state,
though in emotion she was all the while an epicure.
She had advanced to the secret recesses of sensuousness,
yet had hardly crossed the threshold of conventionality.





The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy
Category:
General Fiction
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