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Chapter 4 : The Ministrations of a Half-forgotten One


Eustacia's journey was at first as vague in direction as that
of thistledown on the wind. She did not know what to do.
She wished it had been night instead of morning, that she
might at least have borne her misery without the possibility
of being seen. Tracing mile after mile along between
the dying ferns and the wet white spiders' webs, she at
length turned her steps towards her grandfather's house.
She found the front door closed and locked. Mechanically she
went round to the end where the stable was, and on looking
in at the stable door she saw Charley standing within.

"Captain Vye is not at home?" she said.

"No, ma'am," said the lad in a flutter of feeling;
"he's gone to Weatherbury, and won't be home till night.
And the servant is gone home for a holiday. So the house
is locked up."

Eustacia's face was not visible to Charley as she stood
at the doorway, her back being to the sky, and the stable
but indifferently lighted; but the wildness of her manner
arrested his attention. She turned and walked away across
the enclosure to the gate, and was hidden by the bank.

When she had disappeared Charley, with misgiving
in his eyes, slowly came from the stable door,
and going to another point in the bank he looked over.
Eustacia was leaning against it on the outside,
her face covered with her hands, and her head pressing
the dewy heather which bearded the bank's outer side.
She appeared to be utterly indifferent to the circumstance
that her bonnet, hair, and garments were becoming wet
and disarranged by the moisture of her cold, harsh pillow.
Clearly something was wrong.

Charley had always regarded Eustacia as Eustacia had
regarded Clym when she first beheld him--as a romantic
and sweet vision, scarcely incarnate. He had been
so shut off from her by the dignity of her look and
the pride of her speech, except at that one blissful
interval when he was allowed to hold her hand, that he
had hardly deemed her a woman, wingless and earthly,
subject to household conditions and domestic jars.
The inner details of her life he had only conjectured.
She had been a lovely wonder, predestined to an orbit
in which the whole of his own was but a point; and this
sight of her leaning like a helpless, despairing creature
against a wild wet bank filled him with an amazed horror.
He could no longer remain where he was. Leaping over,
he came up, touched her with his finger, and said tenderly,
"You are poorly, ma'am. What can I do?"

Eustacia started up, and said, "Ah, Charley--you
have followed me. You did not think when I left
home in the summer that I should come back like this!"

"I did not, dear ma'am. Can I help you now?"

"I am afraid not. I wish I could get into the house.
I feel giddy--that's all."

"Lean on my arm, ma'am, till we get to the porch, and I
will try to open the door."

He supported her to the porch, and there depositing her on
a seat hastened to the back, climbed to a window by the
help of a ladder, and descending inside opened the door.
Next he assisted her into the room, where there was an
old-fashioned horsehair settee as large as a donkey wagon.
She lay down here, and Charley covered her with a cloak he
found in the hall.

"Shall I get you something to eat and drink?" he said.

"If you please, Charley. But I suppose there is no fire?"

"I can light it, ma'am."

He vanished, and she heard a splitting of wood and a blowing
of bellows; and presently he returned, saying, "I have
lighted a fire in the kitchen, and now I'll light one here."

He lit the fire, Eustacia dreamily observing him from
her couch. When it was blazing up he said, "Shall I wheel
you round in front of it, ma'am, as the morning is chilly?"

"Yes, if you like."

"Shall I go and bring the victuals now?"

"Yes, do," she murmured languidly.

When he had gone, and the dull sounds occasionally
reached her ears of his movements in the kitchen,
she forgot where she was, and had for a moment to consider
by an effort what the sounds meant. After an interval
which seemed short to her whose thoughts were elsewhere,
he came in with a tray on which steamed tea and toast,
though it was nearly lunch-time.

"Place it on the table," she said. "I shall be ready soon."

He did so, and retired to the door; when, however,
he perceived that she did not move he came back a few steps.

"Let me hold it to you, if you don't wish to get up,"
said Charley. He brought the tray to the front of the couch,
where he knelt down, adding, "I will hold it for you."

Eustacia sat up and poured out a cup of tea. "You are
very kind to me, Charley," she murmured as she sipped.

"Well, I ought to be," said he diffidently, taking great
trouble not to rest his eyes upon her, though this was
their only natural position, Eustacia being immediately
before him. "You have been kind to me."

"How have I?" said Eustacia.

"You let me hold your hand when you were a maiden at home."

"Ah, so I did. Why did I do that? My mind is lost--it
had to do with the mumming, had it not?"

"Yes, you wanted to go in my place."

"I remember. I do indeed remember--too well!"

She again became utterly downcast; and Charley,
seeing that she was not going to eat or drink any more,
took away the tray.

Afterwards he occasionally came in to see if the fire
was burning, to ask her if she wanted anything, to tell
her that the wind had shifted from south to west, to ask
her if she would like him to gather her some blackberries;
to all which inquiries she replied in the negative or
with indifference.

She remained on the settee some time longer, when she
aroused herself and went upstairs. The room in which she
had formerly slept still remained much as she had left it,
and the recollection that this forced upon her of her
own greatly changed and infinitely worsened situation
again set on her face the undetermined and formless
misery which it had worn on her first arrival.
She peeped into her grandfather's room, through which
the fresh autumn air was blowing from the open window.
Her eye was arrested by what was a familiar sight enough,
though it broke upon her now with a new significance.

It was a brace of pistols, hanging near the head of her
grandfather's bed, which he always kept there loaded,
as a precaution against possible burglars, the house being
very lonely. Eustacia regarded them long, as if they
were the page of a book in which she read a new and a
strange matter. Quickly, like one afraid of herself,
she returned downstairs and stood in deep thought.

"If I could only do it!" she said. "It would be doing
much good to myself and all connected with me, and no
harm to a single one."

The idea seemed to gather force within her, and she
remained in a fixed attitude nearly ten minutes,
when a certain finality was expressed in her gaze,
and no longer the blankness of indecision.

She turned and went up the second time--softly and
stealthily now--and entered her grandfather's room, her eyes
at once seeking the head of the bed. The pistols were gone.

The instant quashing of her purpose by their absence
affected her brain as a sudden vacuum affects the
body--she nearly fainted. Who had done this? There
was only one person on the premises besides herself.
Eustacia involuntarily turned to the open window
which overlooked the garden as far as the bank that
bounded it. On the summit of the latter stood Charley,
sufficiently elevated by its height to see into the room.
His gaze was directed eagerly and solicitously upon her.

She went downstairs to the door and beckoned to him.

"You have taken them away?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"Why did you do it?"

"I saw you looking at them too long."

"What has that to do with it?"

"You have been heart-broken all the morning, as if you
did not want to live."

"Well?"

"And I could not bear to leave them in your way.
There was meaning in your look at them."

"Where are they now?"

"Locked up."

"Where?"

"In the stable."

"Give them to me."

"No, ma'am."

"You refuse?"

"I do. I care too much for you to give 'em up."

She turned aside, her face for the first time softening
from the stony immobility of the earlier day, and the
corners of her mouth resuming something of that delicacy
of cut which was always lost in her moments of despair.
At last she confronted him again.

"Why should I not die if I wish?" she said tremulously.
"I have made a bad bargain with life, and I am weary
of it--weary. And now you have hindered my escape.
O, why did you, Charley! What makes death painful except
the thought of others' grief?--and that is absent in my case,
for not a sigh would follow me!"

"Ah, it is trouble that has done this! I wish in my very
soul that he who brought it about might die and rot,
even if 'tis transportation to say it!"

"Charley, no more of that. What do you mean to do about
this you have seen?"

"Keep it close as night, if you promise not to think
of it again."

"You need not fear. The moment has passed. I promise."
She then went away, entered the house, and lay down.

Later in the afternoon her grandfather returned.
He was about to question her categorically, but on looking
at her he withheld his words.

"Yes, it is too bad to talk of," she slowly returned
in answer to his glance. "Can my old room be got ready
for me tonight, Grandfather? I shall want to occupy
it again."

He did not ask what it all meant, or why she had left
her husband, but ordered the room to be prepared.





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