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Chapter 9 : Sights and Sounds Draw the Wanderers Together

Having seen Eustacia's signal from the hill at eight
o'clock, Wildeve immediately prepared to assist her
in her flight, and, as he hoped, accompany her. He was
somewhat perturbed, and his manner of informing Thomasin
that he was going on a journey was in itself sufficient
to rouse her suspicions. When she had gone to bed he
collected the few articles he would require, and went
upstairs to the money-chest, whence he took a tolerably
bountiful sum in notes, which had been advanced to him
on the property he was so soon to have in possession,
to defray expenses incidental to the removal.

He then went to the stable and coach-house to assure
himself that the horse, gig, and harness were in a fit
condition for a long drive. Nearly half an hour
was spent thus, and on returning to the house Wildeve
had no thought of Thomasin being anywhere but in bed.
He had told the stable lad not to stay up, leading the boy
to understand that his departure would be at three or four
in the morning; for this, though an exceptional hour,
was less strange than midnight, the time actually agreed on,
the packet from Budmouth sailing between one and two.

At last all was quiet, and he had nothing to do but to wait.
By no effort could he shake off the oppression of spirits
which he had experienced ever since his last meeting
with Eustacia, but he hoped there was that in his
situation which money could cure. He had persuaded
himself that to act not ungenerously towards his gentle
wife by settling on her the half of his property,
and with chivalrous devotion towards another and greater
woman by sharing her fate, was possible. And though he
meant to adhere to Eustacia's instructions to the letter,
to deposit her where she wished and to leave her,
should that be her will, the spell that she had cast
over him intensified, and his heart was beating fast
in the anticipated futility of such commands in the face
of a mutual wish that they should throw in their lot together.

He would not allow himself to dwell long upon these conjectures,
maxims, and hopes, and at twenty minutes to twelve he
again went softly to the stable, harnessed the horse,
and lit the lamps; whence, taking the horse by the head,
he led him with the covered car out of the yard
to a spot by the roadside some quarter of a mile below the inn.

Here Wildeve waited, slightly sheltered from the driving
rain by a high bank that had been cast up at this place.
Along the surface of the road where lit by the lamps
the loosened gravel and small stones scudded and clicked
together before the wind, which, leaving them in heaps,
plunged into the heath and boomed across the bushes
into darkness. Only one sound rose above this din
of weather, and that was the roaring of a ten-hatch weir
to the southward, from a river in the meads which formed
the boundary of the heath in this direction.

He lingered on in perfect stillness till he began to fancy
that the midnight hour must have struck. A very strong
doubt had arisen in his mind if Eustacia would venture
down the hill in such weather; yet knowing her nature he
felt that she might. "Poor thing! 'tis like her ill-luck,"
he murmured.

At length he turned to the lamp and looked at his watch.
To his surprise it was nearly a quarter past midnight.
He now wished that he had driven up the circuitous road
to Mistover, a plan not adopted because of the enormous
length of the route in proportion to that of the pedestrian's
path down the open hillside, and the consequent increase
of labour for the horse.

At this moment a footstep approached; but the light
of the lamps being in a different direction the comer
was not visible. The step paused, then came on again.

"Eustacia?" said Wildeve.

The person came forward, and the light fell upon
the form of Clym, glistening with wet, whom Wildeve
immediately recognized; but Wildeve, who stood behind
the lamp, was not at once recognized by Yeobright.

He stopped as if in doubt whether this waiting vehicle could
have anything to do with the flight of his wife or not.
The sight of Yeobright at once banished Wildeve's
sober feelings, who saw him again as the deadly rival
from whom Eustacia was to be kept at all hazards.
Hence Wildeve did not speak, in the hope that Clym would
pass by without particular inquiry.

While they both hung thus in hesitation a dull sound
became audible above the storm and wind. Its origin was
unmistakable--it was the fall of a body into the stream
in the adjoining mead, apparently at a point near the weir.

Both started. "Good God! can it be she?" said Clym.

"Why should it be she?" said Wildeve, in his alarm
forgetting that he had hitherto screened himself.

"Ah!--that's you, you traitor, is it?" cried Yeobright.
"Why should it be she? Because last week she would have
put an end to her life if she had been able. She ought
to have been watched! Take one of the lamps and come
with me."

Yeobright seized the one on his side and hastened on;
Wildeve did not wait to unfasten the other, but followed
at once along the meadow track to the weir, a little in
the rear of Clym.

Shadwater Weir had at its foot a large circular pool,
fifty feet in diameter, into which the water flowed
through ten huge hatches, raised and lowered by a winch
and cogs in the ordinary manner. The sides of the pool
were of masonry, to prevent the water from washing away
the bank; but the force of the stream in winter was
sometimes such as to undermine the retaining wall and
precipitate it into the hole. Clym reached the hatches,
the framework of which was shaken to its foundations
by the velocity of the current. Nothing but the froth
of the waves could be discerned in the pool below.
He got upon the plank bridge over the race, and holding
to the rail, that the wind might not blow him off,
crossed to the other side of the river. There he leant
over the wall and lowered the lamp, only to behold the
vortex formed at the curl of the returning current.

Wildeve meanwhile had arrived on the former side, and the
light from Yeobright's lamp shed a flecked and agitated
radiance across the weir pool, revealing to the ex-engineer
the tumbling courses of the currents from the hatches above.
Across this gashed and puckered mirror a dark body
was slowly borne by one of the backward currents.

"O, my darling!" exclaimed Wildeve in an agonized voice;
and, without showing sufficient presence of mind even
to throw off his greatcoat, he leaped into the boiling caldron.

Yeobright could now also discern the floating body,
though but indistinctly; and imagining from Wildeve's
plunge that there was life to be saved he was about
to leap after. Bethinking himself of a wiser plan,
he placed the lamp against a post to make it stand upright,
and running round to the lower part of the pool,
where there was no wall, he sprang in and boldly waded
upwards towards the deeper portion. Here he was taken
off his legs, and in swimming was carried round into the
centre of the basin, where he perceived Wildeve struggling.

While these hasty actions were in progress here,
Venn and Thomasin had been toiling through the lower
corner of the heath in the direction of the light.
They had not been near enough to the river to hear
the plunge, but they saw the removal of the carriage lamp,
and watched its motion into the mead. As soon as they
reached the car and horse Venn guessed that something
new was amiss, and hastened to follow in the course
of the moving light. Venn walked faster than Thomasin,
and came to the weir alone.

The lamp placed against the post by Clym still shone
across the water, and the reddleman observed something
floating motionless. Being encumbered with the infant,
he ran back to meet Thomasin.

"Take the baby, please, Mrs. Wildeve," he said hastily.
"Run home with her, call the stable lad, and make him send
down to me any men who may be living near. Somebody has
fallen into the weir."

Thomasin took the child and ran. When she came to the
covered car the horse, though fresh from the stable,
was standing perfectly still, as if conscious of misfortune.
She saw for the first time whose it was. She nearly fainted,
and would have been unable to proceed another step
but that the necessity of preserving the little girl
from harm nerved her to an amazing self-control. In this
agony of suspense she entered the house, put the baby
in a place of safety, woke the lad and the female domestic,
and ran out to give the alarm at the nearest cottage.

Diggory, having returned to the brink of the pool, observed
that the small upper hatches or floats were withdrawn.
He found one of these lying upon the grass, and taking
it under one arm, and with his lantern in his hand,
entered at the bottom of the pool as Clym had done.
As soon as he began to be in deep water he flung himself
across the hatch; thus supported he was able to keep
afloat as long as he chose, holding the lantern aloft
with his disengaged hand. Propelled by his feet,
he steered round and round the pool, ascending each time
by one of the back streams and descending in the middle
of the current.

At first he could see nothing. Then amidst the
glistening of the whirlpools and the white clots of foam
he distinguished a woman's bonnet floating alone.
His search was now under the left wall, when something
came to the surface almost close beside him. It was not,
as he had expected, a woman, but a man. The reddleman
put the ring of the lantern between his teeth, seized the
floating man by the collar, and, holding on to the hatch
with his remaining arm, struck out into the strongest race,
by which the unconscious man, the hatch, and himself were
carried down the stream. As soon as Venn found his feet
dragging over the pebbles of the shallower part below
he secured his footing and waded towards the brink.
There, where the water stood at about the height of
his waist, he flung away the hatch, and attempted to drag
forth the man. This was a matter of great difficulty,
and he found as the reason that the legs of the unfortunate
stranger were tightly embraced by the arms of another man,
who had hitherto been entirely beneath the surface.

At this moment his heart bounded to hear footsteps
running towards him, and two men, roused by Thomasin,
appeared at the brink above. They ran to where Venn was,
and helped him in lifting out the apparently drowned persons,
separating them, and laying them out upon the grass.
Venn turned the light upon their faces. The one who had
been uppermost was Yeobright; he who had been completely
submerged was Wildeve.

"Now we must search the hole again," said Venn.
"A woman is in there somewhere. Get a pole."

One of the men went to the footbridge and tore off the handrail.
The reddleman and the two others then entered the water
together from below as before, and with their united
force probed the pool forwards to where it sloped down
to its central depth. Venn was not mistaken in supposing
that any person who had sunk for the last time would
be washed down to this point, for when they had examined
to about halfway across something impeded their thrust.

"Pull it forward," said Venn, and they raked it in with
the pole till it was close to their feet.

Venn vanished under the stream, and came up with an
armful of wet drapery enclosing a woman's cold form,
which was all that remained of the desperate Eustacia.

When they reached the bank there stood Thomasin, in a
stress of grief, bending over the two unconscious ones
who already lay there. The horse and cart were brought
to the nearest point in the road, and it was the work
of a few minutes only to place the three in the vehicle.
Venn led on the horse, supporting Thomasin upon his arm,
and the two men followed, till they reached the inn.

The woman who had been shaken out of her sleep by Thomasin
had hastily dressed herself and lighted a fire, the other
servant being left to snore on in peace at the back
of the house. The insensible forms of Eustacia, Clym,
and Wildeve were then brought in and laid on the carpet,
with their feet to the fire, when such restorative
processes as could be thought of were adopted at once,
the stableman being in the meantime sent for a doctor.
But there seemed to be not a whiff of life in either
of the bodies. Then Thomasin, whose stupor of grief
had been thrust off awhile by frantic action, applied a
bottle of hartshorn to Clym's nostrils, having tried
it in vain upon the other two. He sighed.

"Clym's alive!" she exclaimed.

He soon breathed distinctly, and again and again did
she attempt to revive her husband by the same means;
but Wildeve gave no sign. There was too much reason
to think that he and Eustacia both were for ever beyond
the reach of stimulating perfumes. Their exertions did
not relax till the doctor arrived, when one by one,
the senseless three were taken upstairs and put into
warm beds.

Venn soon felt himself relieved from further attendance,
and went to the door, scarcely able yet to realize the strange
catastrophe that had befallen the family in which he took
so great an interest. Thomasin surely would be broken
down by the sudden and overwhelming nature of this event.
No firm and sensible Mrs. Yeobright lived now to support
the gentle girl through the ordeal; and, whatever an
unimpassioned spectator might think of her loss
of such a husband as Wildeve, there could be no doubt
that for the moment she was distracted and horrified
by the blow. As for himself, not being privileged to go
to her and comfort her, he saw no reason for waiting
longer in a house where he remained only as a stranger.

He returned across the heath to his van. The fire was
not yet out, and everything remained as he had left it.
Venn now bethought himself of his clothes, which were
saturated with water to the weight of lead. He changed them,
spread them before the fire, and lay down to sleep.
But it was more than he could do to rest here while excited
by a vivid imagination of the turmoil they were in at the
house he had quitted, and, blaming himself for coming away,
he dressed in another suit, locked up the door, and again
hastened across to the inn. Rain was still falling heavily
when he entered the kitchen. A bright fire was shining
from the hearth, and two women were bustling about,
one of whom was Olly Dowden.

"Well, how is it going on now?" said Venn in a whisper.

"Mr. Yeobright is better; but Mrs. Yeobright
and Mr. Wildeve are dead and cold. The doctor
says they were quite gone before they were out of the water."

"Ah! I thought as much when I hauled 'em up. And Mrs. Wildeve?"

"She is as well as can be expected. The doctor had
her put between blankets, for she was almost as wet
as they that had been in the river, poor young thing.
You don't seem very dry, reddleman."

"Oh, 'tis not much. I have changed my things. This is
only a little dampness I've got coming through the rain again."

"Stand by the fire. Mis'ess says you be to have whatever
you want, and she was sorry when she was told that you'd
gone away."

Venn drew near to the fireplace, and looked into the flames
in an absent mood. The steam came from his leggings
and ascended the chimney with the smoke, while he thought
of those who were upstairs. Two were corpses, one had barely
escaped the jaws of death, another was sick and a widow.
The last occasion on which he had lingered by that fireplace
was when the raffle was in progress; when Wildeve was alive
and well; Thomasin active and smiling in the next room;
Yeobright and Eustacia just made husband and wife,
and Mrs. Yeobright living at Blooms-End. It had seemed at that
time that the then position of affairs was good for at least
twenty years to come. Yet, of all the circle, he himself
was the only one whose situation had not materially changed.

While he ruminated a footstep descended the stairs.
It was the nurse, who brought in her hand a rolled mass
of wet paper. The woman was so engrossed with her occupation
that she hardly saw Venn. She took from a cupboard some
pieces of twine, which she strained across the fireplace,
tying the end of each piece to the firedog, previously pulled
forward for the purpose, and, unrolling the wet papers,
she began pinning them one by one to the strings in a
manner of clothes on a line.

"What be they?" said Venn.

"Poor master's banknotes," she answered. "They were found
in his pocket when they undressed him."

"Then he was not coming back again for some time?"
said Venn.

"That we shall never know," said she.

Venn was loth to depart, for all on earth that interested
him lay under this roof. As nobody in the house had any
more sleep that night, except the two who slept for ever,
there was no reason why he should not remain. So he retired
into the niche of the fireplace where he had used to sit,
and there he continued, watching the steam from the double
row of banknotes as they waved backwards and forwards
in the draught of the chimney till their flaccidity
was changed to dry crispness throughout. Then the woman
came and unpinned them, and, folding them together,
carried the handful upstairs. Presently the doctor
appeared from above with the look of a man who could do
no more, and, pulling on his gloves, went out of the house,
the trotting of his horse soon dying away upon the road.

At four o'clock there was a gentle knock at the door.
It was from Charley, who had been sent by Captain Vye
to inquire if anything had been heard of Eustacia.
The girl who admitted him looked in his face as if she
did not know what answer to return, and showed him in to
where Venn was seated, saying to the reddleman, "Will you
tell him, please?"

Venn told. Charley's only utterance was a feeble,
indistinct sound. He stood quite still; then he burst
out spasmodically, "I shall see her once more?"

"I dare say you may see her," said Diggory gravely.
"But hadn't you better run and tell Captain Vye?"

"Yes, yes. Only I do hope I shall see her just once again."

"You shall," said a low voice behind; and starting
round they beheld by the dim light, a thin, pallid,
almost spectral form, wrapped in a blanket, and looking
like Lazarus coming from the tomb.

It was Yeobright. Neither Venn nor Charley spoke,
and Clym continued, "You shall see her. There will be
time enough to tell the captain when it gets daylight.
You would like to see her too--would you not, Diggory? She
looks very beautiful now."

Venn assented by rising to his feet, and with Charley
he followed Clym to the foot of the staircase,
where he took off his boots; Charley did the same.
They followed Yeobright upstairs to the landing, where there
was a candle burning, which Yeobright took in his hand,
and with it led the way into an adjoining room.
Here he went to the bedside and folded back the sheet.

They stood silently looking upon Eustacia, who, as she lay
there still in death, eclipsed all her living phases.
Pallor did not include all the quality of her complexion,
which seemed more than whiteness; it was almost light.
The expression of her finely carved mouth was pleasant,
as if a sense of dignity had just compelled her to leave
off speaking. Eternal rigidity had seized upon it in a
momentary transition between fervour and resignation.
Her black hair was looser now than either of them had ever
seen it before, and surrounded her brow like a forest.
The stateliness of look which had been almost too marked
for a dweller in a country domicile had at last found an
artistically happy background.

Nobody spoke, till at length Clym covered
her and turned aside. "Now come here," he said.

They went to a recess in the same room, and there,
on a smaller bed, lay another figure--Wildeve. Less repose
was visible in his face than in Eustacia's, but the same
luminous youthfulness overspread it, and the least
sympathetic observer would have felt at sight of him
now that he was born for a higher destiny than this.
The only sign upon him of his recent struggle for life
was in his fingertips, which were worn and sacrificed
in his dying endeavours to obtain a hold on the face
of the weir-wall.

Yeobright's manner had been so quiet, he had uttered so
few syllables since his reappearance, that Venn imagined
him resigned. It was only when they had left the room
and stood upon the landing that the true state of his
mind was apparent. Here he said, with a wild smile,
inclining his head towards the chamber in which Eustacia lay,
"She is the second woman I have killed this year.
I was a great cause of my mother's death, and I am
the chief cause of hers."

"How?" said Venn.

"I spoke cruel words to her, and she left my house.
I did not invite her back till it was too late. It is I who
ought to have drowned myself. It would have been a charity
to the living had the river overwhelmed me and borne her up.
But I cannot die. Those who ought to have lived lie dead;
and here am I alive!"

"But you can't charge yourself with crimes in that way,"
said Venn. "You may as well say that the parents be the
cause of a murder by the child, for without the parents
the child would never have been begot."

"Yes, Venn, that is very true; but you don't know
all the circumstances. If it had pleased God to put
an end to me it would have been a good thing for all.
But I am getting used to the horror of my existence.
They say that a time comes when men laugh at misery through
long acquaintance with it. Surely that time will soon
come to me!"

"Your aim has always been good," said Venn. "Why should
you say such desperate things?"

"No, they are not desperate. They are only hopeless;
and my great regret is that for what I have done no man
or law can punish me!"

The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy
General Fiction
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