eBooks Cube
 
Chapter 2 : Humanity Appears upon the Scene, Hand in Hand with Trouble


Along the road walked an old man. He was white-headed
as a mountain, bowed in the shoulders, and faded
in general aspect. He wore a glazed hat, an ancient
boat-cloak, and shoes; his brass buttons bearing an
anchor upon their face. In his hand was a silver-headed
walking stick, which he used as a veritable third leg,
perseveringly dotting the ground with its point at every
few inches' interval. One would have said that he had been,
in his day, a naval officer of some sort or other.

Before him stretched the long, laborious road, dry, empty,
and white. It was quite open to the heath on each side,
and bisected that vast dark surface like the parting-line
on a head of black hair, diminishing and bending away
on the furthest horizon.

The old man frequently stretched his eyes ahead to gaze
over the tract that he had yet to traverse. At length
he discerned, a long distance in front of him, a moving spot,
which appeared to be a vehicle, and it proved to be going
the same way as that in which he himself was journeying.
It was the single atom of life that the scene contained,
and it only served to render the general loneliness
more evident. Its rate of advance was slow, and the old
man gained upon it sensibly.

When he drew nearer he perceived it to be a spring van,
ordinary in shape, but singular in colour, this being a
lurid red. The driver walked beside it; and, like his van,
he was completely red. One dye of that tincture covered
his clothes, the cap upon his head, his boots, his face,
and his hands. He was not temporarily overlaid with
the colour; it permeated him.

The old man knew the meaning of this. The traveller
with the cart was a reddleman--a person whose vocation
it was to supply farmers with redding for their sheep.
He was one of a class rapidly becoming extinct in Wessex,
filling at present in the rural world the place which,
during the last century, the dodo occupied in the world
of animals. He is a curious, interesting, and nearly
perished link between obsolete forms of life and those which
generally prevail.

The decayed officer, by degrees, came up alongside his
fellow-wayfarer, and wished him good evening. The reddleman
turned his head, and replied in sad and occupied tones.
He was young, and his face, if not exactly handsome,
approached so near to handsome that nobody would have
contradicted an assertion that it really was so in its
natural colour. His eye, which glared so strangely
through his stain, was in itself attractive--keen
as that of a bird of prey, and blue as autumn mist.
He had neither whisker nor moustache, which allowed the soft
curves of the lower part of his face to be apparent.
His lips were thin, and though, as it seemed, compressed
by thought, there was a pleasant twitch at their corners
now and then. He was clothed throughout in a tight-fitting
suit of corduroy, excellent in quality, not much worn,
and well-chosen for its purpose, but deprived of its
original colour by his trade. It showed to advantage the
good shape of his figure. A certain well-to-do air about
the man suggested that he was not poor for his degree.
The natural query of an observer would have been,
Why should such a promising being as this have hidden
his prepossessing exterior by adopting that singular occupation?

After replying to the old man's greeting he showed no
inclination to continue in talk, although they still
walked side by side, for the elder traveller seemed
to desire company. There were no sounds but that of the
booming wind upon the stretch of tawny herbage around them,
the crackling wheels, the tread of the men, and the
footsteps of the two shaggy ponies which drew the van.
They were small, hardy animals, of a breed between Galloway
and Exmoor, and were known as "heath-croppers" here.

Now, as they thus pursued their way, the reddleman occasionally
left his companion's side, and, stepping behind the van,
looked into its interior through a small window. The look
was always anxious. He would then return to the old man,
who made another remark about the state of the country
and so on, to which the reddleman again abstractedly
replied, and then again they would lapse into silence.
The silence conveyed to neither any sense of awkwardness;
in these lonely places wayfarers, after a first greeting,
frequently plod on for miles without speech; contiguity amounts
to a tacit conversation where, otherwise than in cities,
such contiguity can be put an end to on the merest inclination,
and where not to put an end to it is intercourse in itself.

Possibly these two might not have spoken again till their parting,
had it not been for the reddleman's visits to his van.
When he returned from his fifth time of looking in the old
man said, "You have something inside there besides your load?"

"Yes."

"Somebody who wants looking after?"

"Yes."

Not long after this a faint cry sounded from the interior.
The reddleman hastened to the back, looked in, and came
away again.

"You have a child there, my man?"

"No, sir, I have a woman."

"The deuce you have! Why did she cry out?"

"Oh, she has fallen asleep, and not being used to traveling,
she's uneasy, and keeps dreaming."

"A young woman?"

"Yes, a young woman."

"That would have interested me forty years ago.
Perhaps she's your wife?"

"My wife!" said the other bitterly. "She's above mating
with such as I. But there's no reason why I should tell
you about that."

"That's true. And there's no reason why you should not.
What harm can I do to you or to her?"

The reddleman looked in the old man's face. "Well, sir,"
he said at last, "I knew her before today, though perhaps
it would have been better if I had not. But she's
nothing to me, and I am nothing to her; and she wouldn't
have been in my van if any better carriage had been there
to take her."

"Where, may I ask?"

"At Anglebury."

"I know the town well. What was she doing there?"

"Oh, not much--to gossip about. However, she's tired to death now,
and not at all well, and that's what makes her so restless.
She dropped off into a nap about an hour ago, and 'twill do her good."

"A nice-looking girl, no doubt?"

"You would say so."

The other traveller turned his eyes with interest
towards the van window, and, without withdrawing them,
said, "I presume I might look in upon her?"

"No," said the reddleman abruptly. "It is getting too
dark for you to see much of her; and, more than that,
I have no right to allow you. Thank God she sleeps so well,
I hope she won't wake till she's home."

"Who is she? One of the neighbourhood?"

"'Tis no matter who, excuse me."

"It is not that girl of Blooms-End, who has been talked
about more or less lately? If so, I know her; and I can
guess what has happened."

"'Tis no matter....Now, sir, I am sorry to say that we
shall soon have to part company. My ponies are tired,
and I have further to go, and I am going to rest them
under this bank for an hour."

The elder traveller nodded his head indifferently,
and the reddleman turned his horses and van in upon
the turf, saying, "Good night." The old man replied,
and proceeded on his way as before.

The reddleman watched his form as it diminished to a
speck on the road and became absorbed in the thickening
films of night. He then took some hay from a truss
which was slung up under the van, and, throwing a portion
of it in front of the horses, made a pad of the rest,
which he laid on the ground beside his vehicle.
Upon this he sat down, leaning his back against the wheel.
From the interior a low soft breathing came to his ear.
It appeared to satisfy him, and he musingly surveyed
the scene, as if considering the next step that he
should take.

To do things musingly, and by small degrees, seemed, indeed,
to be a duty in the Egdon valleys at this transitional hour,
for there was that in the condition of the heath itself
which resembled protracted and halting dubiousness.
It was the quality of the repose appertaining to the scene.
This was not the repose of actual stagnation, but the
apparent repose of incredible slowness. A condition
of healthy life so nearly resembling the torpor of death
is a noticeable thing of its sort; to exhibit the inertness
of the desert, and at the same time to be exercising powers
akin to those of the meadow, and even of the forest,
awakened in those who thought of it the attentiveness
usually engendered by understatement and reserve.

The scene before the reddleman's eyes was a gradual series
of ascents from the level of the road backward into the
heart of the heath. It embraced hillocks, pits, ridges,
acclivities, one behind the other, till all was finished
by a high hill cutting against the still light sky.
The traveller's eye hovered about these things for a time,
and finally settled upon one noteworthy object up there.
It was a barrow. This bossy projection of earth above
its natural level occupied the loftiest ground of the
loneliest height that the heath contained. Although from
the vale it appeared but as a wart on an Atlantean brow,
its actual bulk was great. It formed the pole and axis
of this heathery world.

As the resting man looked at the barrow he became aware
that its summit, hitherto the highest object in the whole
prospect round, was surmounted by something higher. It rose
from the semiglobular mound like a spike from a helmet.
The first instinct of an imaginative stranger might have
been to suppose it the person of one of the Celts who
built the barrow, so far had all of modern date withdrawn
from the scene. It seemed a sort of last man among them,
musing for a moment before dropping into eternal night
with the rest of his race.

There the form stood, motionless as the hill beneath.
Above the plain rose the hill, above the hill rose
the barrow, and above the barrow rose the figure.
Above the figure was nothing that could be mapped elsewhere
than on a celestial globe.

Such a perfect, delicate, and necessary finish did
the figure give to the dark pile of hills that it seemed
to be the only obvious justification of their outline.
Without it, there was the dome without the lantern; with it
the architectural demands of the mass were satisfied.
The scene was strangely homogeneous, in that the vale,
the upland, the barrow, and the figure above it amounted
only to unity. Looking at this or that member of the group
was not observing a complete thing, but a fraction of
a thing.

The form was so much like an organic part of the
entire motionless structure that to see it move would
have impressed the mind as a strange phenomenon.
Immobility being the chief characteristic of that whole
which the person formed portion of, the discontinuance
of immobility in any quarter suggested confusion.

Yet that is what happened. The figure perceptibly gave
up its fixity, shifted a step or two, and turned round.
As if alarmed, it descended on the right side of the barrow,
with the glide of a water-drop down a bud, and then vanished.
The movement had been sufficient to show more clearly
the characteristics of the figure, and that it was a
woman's.

The reason of her sudden displacement now appeared.
With her dropping out of sight on the right side, a newcomer,
bearing a burden, protruded into the sky on the left side,
ascended the tumulus, and deposited the burden on the top.
A second followed, then a third, a fourth, a fifth,
and ultimately the whole barrow was peopled with
burdened figures.

The only intelligible meaning in this sky-backed pantomime
of silhouettes was that the woman had no relation to the forms
who had taken her place, was sedulously avoiding these,
and had come thither for another object than theirs.
The imagination of the observer clung by preference
to that vanished, solitary figure, as to something
more interesting, more important, more likely to have a
history worth knowing than these newcomers, and unconsciously
regarded them as intruders. But they remained,
and established themselves; and the lonely person who hitherto
had been queen of the solitude did not at present seem likely
to return.





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