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Chapter 4 : The Halt on the Turnpike Road


Down, downward they went, and yet further down--their
descent at each step seeming to outmeasure their advance.
Their skirts were scratched noisily by the furze,
their shoulders brushed by the ferns, which, though dead
and dry, stood erect as when alive, no sufficient winter
weather having as yet arrived to beat them down.
Their Tartarean situation might by some have been called
an imprudent one for two unattended women. But these
shaggy recesses were at all seasons a familiar surrounding
to Olly and Mrs. Yeobright; and the addition of darkness
lends no frightfulness to the face of a friend.

"And so Tamsin has married him at last," said Olly,
when the incline had become so much less steep that their
foot-steps no longer required undivided attention.

Mrs. Yeobright answered slowly, "Yes; at last."

"How you will miss her--living with 'ee as a daughter,
as she always have."

"I do miss her."

Olly, though without the tact to perceive when remarks
were untimely, was saved by her very simplicity from
rendering them offensive. Questions that would have
been resented in others she could ask with impunity.
This accounted for Mrs. Yeobright's acquiescence in the
revival of an evidently sore subject.

"I was quite strook to hear you'd agreed to it,
ma'am, that I was," continued the besom-maker.

"You were not more struck by it than I should have been
last year this time, Olly. There are a good many sides
to that wedding. I could not tell you all of them,
even if I tried."

"I felt myself that he was hardly solid-going enough
to mate with your family. Keeping an inn--what is it?
But 'a's clever, that's true, and they say he was an
engineering gentleman once, but has come down by being
too outwardly given."

"I saw that, upon the whole, it would be better she
should marry where she wished."

"Poor little thing, her feelings got the better of her,
no doubt. 'Tis nature. Well, they may call him what they
will--he've several acres of heth-ground broke up here,
besides the public house, and the heth-croppers, and his
manners be quite like a gentleman's. And what's done cannot
be undone."

"It cannot," said Mrs. Yeobright. "See, here's
the wagon-track at last. Now we shall get along better."

The wedding subject was no further dwelt upon;
and soon a faint diverging path was reached, where they
parted company, Olly first begging her companion to remind
Mr. Wildeve that he had not sent her sick husband the
bottle of wine promised on the occasion of his marriage.
The besom-maker turned to the left towards her own house,
behind a spur of the hill, and Mrs. Yeobright followed
the straight track, which further on joined the highway by
the Quiet Woman Inn, whither she supposed her niece to have
returned with Wildeve from their wedding at Anglebury that day.

She first reached Wildeve's Patch, as it was called,
a plot of land redeemed from the heath, and after long
and laborious years brought into cultivation. The man who
had discovered that it could be tilled died of the labour;
the man who succeeded him in possession ruined himself
in fertilizing it. Wildeve came like Amerigo Vespucci,
and received the honours due to those who had gone before.

When Mrs. Yeobright had drawn near to the inn,
and was about to enter, she saw a horse and vehicle
some two hundred yards beyond it, coming towards her,
a man walking alongside with a lantern in his hand.
It was soon evident that this was the reddleman who had
inquired for her. Instead of entering the inn at once,
she walked by it and towards the van.

The conveyance came close, and the man was about to pass
her with little notice, when she turned to him and said,
"I think you have been inquiring for me? I am Mrs. Yeobright
of Blooms-End."

The reddleman started, and held up his finger.
He stopped the horses, and beckoned to her to withdraw
with him a few yards aside, which she did, wondering.

"You don't know me, ma'am, I suppose?" he said.

"I do not," said she. "Why, yes, I do! You are young
Venn--your father was a dairyman somewhere here?"

"Yes; and I knew your niece, Miss Tamsin, a little.
I have something bad to tell you."

"About her--no! She has just come home, I believe,
with her husband. They arranged to return this
afternoon--to the inn beyond here."

"She's not there."

"How do you know?"

"Because she's here. She's in my van," he added slowly.

"What new trouble has come?" murmured Mrs. Yeobright,
putting her hand over her eyes.

"I can't explain much, ma'am. All I know is that, as I
was going along the road this morning, about a mile out
of Anglebury, I heard something trotting after me like a doe,
and looking round there she was, white as death itself.
'Oh, Diggory Venn!' she said, 'I thought 'twas you--will
you help me? I am in trouble.'"

"How did she know your Christian name?" said Mrs. Yeobright
doubtingly.

"I had met her as a lad before I went away in this trade.
She asked then if she might ride, and then down she fell
in a faint. I picked her up and put her in, and there
she has been ever since. She has cried a good deal,
but she has hardly spoke; all she has told me being
that she was to have been married this morning.
I tried to get her to eat something, but she couldn't;
and at last she fell asleep."

"Let me see her at once," said Mrs. Yeobright,
hastening towards the van.

The reddleman followed with the lantern, and, stepping
up first, assisted Mrs. Yeobright to mount beside him.
On the door being opened she perceived at the end
of the van an extemporized couch, around which was hung
apparently all the drapery that the reddleman possessed,
to keep the occupant of the little couch from contact
with the red materials of his trade. A young girl
lay thereon, covered with a cloak. She was asleep,
and the light of the lantern fell upon her features.

A fair, sweet, and honest country face was revealed,
reposing in a nest of wavy chestnut hair. It was between
pretty and beautiful. Though her eyes were closed,
one could easily imagine the light necessarily shining in them
as the culmination of the luminous workmanship around.
The groundwork of the face was hopefulness; but over it
now I ay like a foreign substance a film of anxiety
and grief. The grief had been there so shortly as to
have abstracted nothing of the bloom, and had as yet but
given a dignity to what it might eventually undermine.
The scarlet of her lips had not had time to abate,
and just now it appeared still more intense by the absence
of the neighbouring and more transient colour of her cheek.
The lips frequently parted, with a murmur of words.
She seemed to belong rightly to a madrigal--to require
viewing through rhyme and harmony.

One thing at least was obvious: she was not made to be
looked at thus. The reddleman had appeared conscious
of as much, and, while Mrs. Yeobright looked in upon her,
he cast his eyes aside with a delicacy which well became him.
The sleeper apparently thought so too, for the next moment
she opened her own.

The lips then parted with something of anticipation,
something more of doubt; and her several thoughts and fractions
of thoughts, as signalled by the changes on her face,
were exhibited by the light to the utmost nicety.
An ingenuous, transparent life was disclosed, as if the
flow of her existence could be seen passing within her.
She understood the scene in a moment.

"O yes, it is I, Aunt," she cried. "I know how frightened
you are, and how you cannot believe it; but all the same,
it is I who have come home like this!"

"Tamsin, Tamsin!" said Mrs. Yeobright, stooping over
the young woman and kissing her. "O my dear girl!"

Thomasin was now on the verge of a sob, but by an unexpected
self-command she uttered no sound. With a gentle panting
breath she sat upright.

"I did not expect to see you in this state, any more
than you me," she went on quickly. "Where am I, Aunt?"

"Nearly home, my dear. In Egdon Bottom. What dreadful
thing is it?"

"I'll tell you in a moment. So near, are we? Then I
will get out and walk. I want to go home by the path."

"But this kind man who has done so much will, I am sure,
take you right on to my house?" said the aunt, turning to
the reddleman, who had withdrawn from the front of the van
on the awakening of the girl, and stood in the road.

"Why should you think it necessary to ask me? I will,
of course," said he.

"He is indeed kind," murmured Thomasin. "I was once
acquainted with him, Aunt, and when I saw him today I thought
I should prefer his van to any conveyance of a stranger.
But I'll walk now. Reddleman, stop the horses, please."

The man regarded her with tender reluctance, but stopped
them

Aunt and niece then descended from the van, Mrs. Yeobright
saying to its owner, "I quite recognize you now.
What made you change from the nice business your father
left you?"

"Well, I did," he said, and looked at Thomasin,
who blushed a little. "Then you'll not be wanting
me any more tonight, ma'am?"

Mrs. Yeobright glanced around at the dark sky, at the hills,
at the perishing bonfires, and at the lighted window
of the inn they had neared. "I think not," she said,
"since Thomasin wishes to walk. We can soon run up
the path and reach home--we know it well."

And after a few further words they parted, the reddleman
moving onwards with his van, and the two women remaining
standing in the road. As soon as the vehicle and its
driver had withdrawn so far as to be beyond all possible
reach of her voice, Mrs. Yeobright turned to her niece.

"Now, Thomasin," she said sternly, "what's the meaning
of this disgraceful performance?"





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