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Chapter 4 : Eustacia Is Led on to an Adventure


In the evening of this last day of expectation, which was
the twenty-third of December, Eustacia was at home alone.
She had passed the recent hour in lamenting over a rumour
newly come to her ears--that Yeobright's visit to his
mother was to be of short duration, and would end some
time the next week. "Naturally," she said to herself.
A man in the full swing of his activities in a gay city
could not afford to linger long on Egdon Heath. That she
would behold face to face the owner of the awakening voice
within the limits of such a holiday was most unlikely,
unless she were to haunt the environs of his mother's house
like a robin, to do which was difficult and unseemly.

The customary expedient of provincial girls and men
in such circumstances is churchgoing. In an ordinary
village or country town one can safely calculate that,
either on Christmas day or the Sunday contiguous,
any native home for the holidays, who has not through age
or ennui lost the appetite for seeing and being seen,
will turn up in some pew or other, shining with hope,
self-consciousness, and new clothes. Thus the congregation
on Christmas morning is mostly a Tussaud collection
of celebrities who have been born in the neighbourhood.
Hither the mistress, left neglected at home all the year,
can steal and observe the development of the returned
lover who has forgotten her, and think as she watches
him over her prayer book that he may throb with a
renewed fidelity when novelties have lost their charm.
And hither a comparatively recent settler like Eustacia
may betake herself to scrutinize the person of a native
son who left home before her advent upon the scene,
and consider if the friendship of his parents be worth
cultivating during his next absence in order to secure a
knowledge of him on his next return.

But these tender schemes were not feasible among the scattered
inhabitants of Egdon Heath. In name they were parishioners,
but virtually they belonged to no parish at all.
People who came to these few isolated houses to keep
Christmas with their friends remained in their friends'
chimney-corners drinking mead and other comforting liquors
till they left again for good and all. Rain, snow, ice,
mud everywhere around, they did not care to trudge two or three
miles to sit wet-footed and splashed to the nape of their
necks among those who, though in some measure neighbours,
lived close to the church, and entered it clean and dry.
Eustacia knew it was ten to one that Clym Yeobright would
go to no church at all during his few days of leave,
and that it would be a waste of labour for her to go driving
the pony and gig over a bad road in hope to see him there.

It was dusk, and she was sitting by the fire in the dining-room
or hall, which they occupied at this time of the year
in preference to the parlour, because of its large hearth,
constructed for turf-fires, a fuel the captain was partial
to in the winter season. The only visible articles
in the room were those on the window-sill, which showed
their shapes against the low sky, the middle article being
the old hourglass, and the other two a pair of ancient
British urns which had been dug from a barrow near,
and were used as flowerpots for two razor-leaved cactuses.
Somebody knocked at the door. The servant was out;
so was her grandfather. The person, after waiting a minute,
came in and tapped at the door of the room.

"Who's there?" said Eustacia.

"Please, Cap'n Vye, will you let us----"

Eustacia arose and went to the door. "I cannot allow
you to come in so boldly. You should have waited."

"The cap'n said I might come in without any fuss,"
was answered in a lad's pleasant voice.

"Oh, did he?" said Eustacia more gently. "What do
you want, Charley?"

"Please will your grandfather lend us his fuelhouse
to try over our parts in, tonight at seven o'clock?"

"What, are you one of the Egdon mummers for this year?"

"Yes, miss. The cap'n used to let the old mummers
practise here."

"I know it. Yes, you may use the fuelhouse if you like,"
said Eustacia languidly.

The choice of Captain Vye's fuelhouse as the scene
of rehearsal was dictated by the fact that his dwelling
was nearly in the centre of the heath. The fuelhouse
was as roomy as a barn, and was a most desirable place
for such a purpose. The lads who formed the company
of players lived at different scattered points around,
and by meeting in this spot the distances to be traversed
by all the comers would be about equally proportioned.

For mummers and mumming Eustacia had the greatest contempt.
The mummers themselves were not afflicted with any such
feeling for their art, though at the same time they
were not enthusiastic. A traditional pastime is to be
distinguished from a mere revival in no more striking
feature than in this, that while in the revival all is
excitement and fervour, the survival is carried on with
a stolidity and absence of stir which sets one wondering
why a thing that is done so perfunctorily should be kept
up at all. Like Balaam and other unwilling prophets,
the agents seem moved by an inner compulsion to say
and do their allotted parts whether they will or no.
This unweeting manner of performance is the true ring
by which, in this refurbishing age, a fossilized survival
may be known from a spurious reproduction.

The piece was the well-known play of Saint George, and
all who were behind the scenes assisted in the preparations,
including the women of each household. Without the
co-operation of sisters and sweethearts the dresses
were likely to be a failure; but on the other hand,
this class of assistance was not without its drawbacks.
The girls could never be brought to respect tradition
in designing and decorating the armour; they insisted on
attaching loops and bows of silk and velvet in any situation
pleasing to their taste. Gorget, gusset, basinet, cuirass,
gauntlet, sleeve, all alike in the view of these feminine
eyes were practicable spaces whereon to sew scraps of
fluttering colour.

It might be that Joe, who fought on the side of Christendom,
had a sweetheart, and that Jim, who fought on the side
of the Moslem, had one likewise. During the making
of the costumes it would come to the knowledge of Joe's
sweetheart that Jim's was putting brilliant silk scallops
at the bottom of her lover's surcoat, in addition to the
ribbons of the visor, the bars of which, being invariably
formed of coloured strips about half an inch wide
hanging before the face, were mostly of that material.
Joe's sweetheart straight-way placed brilliant silk on the
scallops of the hem in question, and, going a little further,
added ribbon tufts to the shoulder pieces. Jim's, not
to be outdone, would affix bows and rosettes everywhere.

The result was that in the end the Valiant Soldier,
of the Christian army, was distinguished by no peculiarity
of accoutrement from the Turkish Knight; and what was worse,
on a casual view Saint George himself might be mistaken
for his deadly enemy, the Saracen. The guisers themselves,
though inwardly regretting this confusion of persons,
could not afford to offend those by whose assistance they
so largely profited, and the innovations were allowed
to stand.

There was, it is true, a limit to this tendency to uniformity.
The Leech or Doctor preserved his character intact--his
darker habiliments, peculiar hat, and the bottle of
physic slung under his arm, could never be mistaken.
And the same might be said of the conventional figure
of Father Christmas, with his gigantic club, an older man,
who accompanied the band as general protector in long
night journeys from parish to parish, and was bearer
of the purse.

Seven o'clock, the hour of the rehearsal, came round, and in
a short time Eustacia could hear voices in the fuelhouse.
To dissipate in some trifling measure her abiding sense
of the murkiness of human life she went to the "linhay"
or lean-to shed, which formed the root-store of their
dwelling and abutted on the fuelhouse. Here was a small
rough hole in the mud wall, originally made for pigeons,
through which the interior of the next shed could be viewed.
A light came from it now; and Eustacia stepped upon a stool
to look in upon the scene.

On a ledge in the fuelhouse stood three tall rushlights
and by the light of them seven or eight lads were
marching about, haranguing, and confusing each other,
in endeavours to perfect themselves in the play.
Humphrey and Sam, the furze-and turf-cutters, were
there looking on, so also was Timothy Fairway, who leant
against the wall and prompted the boys from memory,
interspersing among the set words remarks and anecdotes
of the superior days when he and others were the Egdon
mummers-elect that these lads were now.

"Well, ye be as well up to it as ever ye will be," he said.
"Not that such mumming would have passed in our time.
Harry as the Saracen should strut a bit more, and John needn't
holler his inside out. Beyond that perhaps you'll do.
Have you got all your clothes ready?"

"We shall by Monday."

"Your first outing will be Monday night, I suppose?"

"Yes. At Mrs. Yeobright's."

"Oh, Mrs. Yeobright's. What makes her want to see ye? I
should think a middle-aged woman was tired of mumming."

"She's got up a bit of a party, because 'tis the first
Christmas that her son Clym has been home for a long time."

"To be sure, to be sure--her party! I am going myself.
I almost forgot it, upon my life."

Eustacia's face flagged. There was to be a party at
the Yeobrights'; she, naturally, had nothing to do with it.
She was a stranger to all such local gatherings, and had
always held them as scarcely appertaining to her sphere.
But had she been going, what an opportunity would have
been afforded her of seeing the man whose influence
was penetrating her like summer sun! To increase that
influence was coveted excitement; to cast it off might be
to regain serenity; to leave it as it stood was tantalizing.

The lads and men prepared to leave the premises, and Eustacia
returned to her fireside. She was immersed in thought,
but not for long. In a few minutes the lad Charley,
who had come to ask permission to use the place,
returned with the key to the kitchen. Eustacia heard him,
and opening the door into the passage said, "Charley, come here."

The lad was surprised. He entered the front room not
without blushing; for he, like many, had felt the power
of this girl's face and form.

She pointed to a seat by the fire, and entered
the other side of the chimney-corner herself.
It could be seen in her face that whatever motive
she might have had in asking the youth indoors would soon appear.

"Which part do you play, Charley--the Turkish Knight,
do you not?" inquired the beauty, looking across the smoke
of the fire to him on the other side.

"Yes, miss, the Turkish Knight," he replied diffidently.

"Is yours a long part?"

"Nine speeches, about."

"Can you repeat them to me? If so I should like to hear them."

The lad smiled into the glowing turf and began--

"Here come I, a Turkish Knight,
Who learnt in Turkish land to fight,"

continuing the discourse throughout the scenes to the
concluding catastrophe of his fall by the hand of Saint George.

Eustacia had occasionally heard the part recited before.
When the lad ended she began, precisely in the same words,
and ranted on without hitch or divergence till she too
reached the end. It was the same thing, yet how different.
Like in form, it had the added softness and finish
of a Raffaelle after Perugino, which, while faithfully
reproducing the original subject, entirely distances the
original art.

Charley's eyes rounded with surprise. "Well, you be
a clever lady!" he said, in admiration. "I've been
three weeks learning mine."

"I have heard it before," she quietly observed.
"Now, would you do anything to please me, Charley?"

"I'd do a good deal, miss."

"Would you let me play your part for one night?"

"Oh, miss! But your woman's gown--you couldn't."

"I can get boy's clothes--at least all that would be wanted
besides the mumming dress. What should I have to give
you to lend me your things, to let me take your place
for an hour or two on Monday night, and on no account
to say a word about who or what I am? You would, of course,
have to excuse yourself from playing that night, and to say
that somebody--a cousin of Miss Vye's--would act for you.
The other mummers have never spoken to me in their lives
so that it would be safe enough; and if it were not,
I should not mind. Now, what must I give you to agree
to this? Half a crown?"

The youth shook his head

"Five shillings?"

He shook his head again. "Money won't do it," he said,
brushing the iron head of the firedog with the hollow
of his hand.

"What will, then, Charley?" said Eustacia in a disappointed tone.

"You know what you forbade me at the Maypoling, miss,"
murmured the lad, without looking at her, and still
stroking the firedog's head.

"Yes," said Eustacia, with a little more hauteur.
"You wanted to join hands with me in the ring, if I recollect?"

"Half an hour of that, and I'll agree, miss."

Eustacia regarded the youth steadfastly. He was three years
younger than herself, but apparently not backward for his age.
"Half an hour of what?" she said, though she guessed what.

"Holding your hand in mine."

She was silent. "Make it a quarter of an hour," she said

"Yes, Miss Eustacia--I will, if I may kiss it too.
A quarter of an hour. And I'll swear to do the best I
can to let you take my place without anybody knowing.
Don't you think somebody might know your tongue, miss?"

"It is possible. But I will put a pebble in my mouth
to make is less likely. Very well; you shall be allowed
to have my hand as soon as you bring the dress and your
sword and staff. I don't want you any longer now."

Charley departed, and Eustacia felt more and more interest
in life. Here was something to do: here was some one
to see, and a charmingly adventurous way to see him.
"Ah," she said to herself, "want of an object to live
for--that's all is the matter with me!"

Eustacia's manner was as a rule of a slumberous sort,
her passions being of the massive rather than the vivacious kind.
But when aroused she would make a dash which, just for
the time, was not unlike the move of a naturally lively person.

On the question of recognition she was somewhat indifferent.
By the acting lads themselves she was not likely to be known.
With the guests who might be assembled she was hardly so secure.
Yet detection, after all, would be no such dreadful thing.
The fact only could be detected, her true motive never.
It would be instantly set down as the passing freak
of a girl whose ways were already considered singular.
That she was doing for an earnest reason what would most
naturally be done in jest was at any rate a safe secret.


The next evening Eustacia stood punctually at the fuelhouse
door, waiting for the dusk which was to bring Charley
with the trappings. Her grandfather was at home tonight,
and she would be unable to ask her confederate indoors.

He appeared on the dark ridge of heathland, like a fly
on a Negro, bearing the articles with him, and came up
breathless with his walk.

"Here are the things," he whispered, placing them upon
the threshold. "And now, Miss Eustacia--"

"The payment. It is quite ready. I am as good as my word."

She leant against the door-post, and gave him her hand.
Charley took it in both his own with a tenderness
beyond description, unless it was like that of a child
holding a captured sparrow.

"Why, there's a glove on it!" he said in a deprecating way.

"I have been walking," she observed.

"But, miss!"

"Well--it is hardly fair." She pulled off the glove,
and gave him her bare hand.

They stood together minute after minute, without
further speech, each looking at the blackening scene,
and each thinking his and her own thoughts.

"I think I won't use it all up tonight," said Charley devotedly,
when six or eight minutes had been passed by him caressing
her hand. "May I have the other few minutes another time?"

"As you like," said she without the least emotion.
"But it must be over in a week. Now, there is only one
thing I want you to do--to wait while I put on the dress,
and then to see if I do my part properly. But let me look
first indoors."

She vanished for a minute or two, and went in.
Her grandfather was safely asleep in his chair. "Now, then,"
she said, on returning, "walk down the garden a little way,
and when I am ready I'll call you."

Charley walked and waited, and presently heard a soft whistle.
He returned to the fuelhouse door.

"Did you whistle, Miss Vye?"

"Yes; come in," reached him in Eustacia's voice from a
back quarter. "I must not strike a light till the door
is shut, or it may be seen shining. Push your hat into the
hole through to the wash-house, if you can feel your way across."

Charley did as commanded, and she struck the light revealing
herself to be changed in sex, brilliant in colours,
and armed from top to toe. Perhaps she quailed a little
under Charley's vigorous gaze, but whether any shyness
at her male attire appeared upon her countenance could
not be seen by reason of the strips of ribbon which used
to cover the face in mumming costumes, representing the
barred visor of the mediaeval helmet.

"It fits pretty well," she said, looking down at the
white overalls, "except that the tunic, or whatever
you call it, is long in the sleeve. The bottom
of the overalls I can turn up inside. Now pay attention."

Eustacia then proceeded in her delivery, striking the
sword against the staff or lance at the minatory phrases,
in the orthodox mumming manner, and strutting up and down.
Charley seasoned his admiration with criticism of the
gentlest kind, for the touch of Eustacia's hand yet
remained with him.

"And now for your excuse to the others," she said.
"Where do you meet before you go to Mrs. Yeobright's?"

"We thought of meeting here, miss, if you have nothing
to say against it. At eight o'clock, so as to get there
by nine."

"Yes. Well, you of course must not appear. I will march
in about five minutes late, ready-dressed, and tell them
that you can't come. I have decided that the best plan
will be for you to be sent somewhere by me, to make
a real thing of the excuse. Our two heath-croppers
are in the habit of straying into the meads, and tomorrow
evening you can go and see if they are gone there.
I'll manage the rest. Now you may leave me."

"Yes, miss. But I think I'll have one minute more
of what I am owed, if you don't mind."

Eustacia gave him her hand as before.

"One minute," she said, and counted on till she reached
seven or eight minutes. Hand and person she then
withdrew to a distance of several feet, and recovered
some of her old dignity. The contract completed,
she raised between them a barrier impenetrable as a wall.

"There, 'tis all gone; and I didn't mean quite all,"
he said, with a sigh.

"You had good measure," said she, turning away.

"Yes, miss. Well, 'tis over, and now I'll get home-along."





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