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Chapter 7 : Queen of Night


Eustacia Vye was the raw material of a divinity. On Olympus
she would have done well with a little preparation.
She had the passions and instincts which make a model goddess,
that is, those which make not quite a model woman.
Had it been possible for the earth and mankind to be entirely
in her grasp for a while, she had handled the distaff,
the spindle, and the shears at her own free will, few in
the world would have noticed the change of government.
There would have been the same inequality of lot, the same
heaping up of favours here, of contumely there, the same
generosity before justice, the same perpetual dilemmas,
the same captious alteration of caresses and blows that we
endure now.

She was in person full-limbed and somewhat heavy;
without ruddiness, as without pallor; and soft to the
touch as a cloud. To see her hair was to fancy that a
whole winter did not contain darkness enough to form
its shadow--it closed over her forehead like nightfall
extinguishing the western glow.

Her nerves extended into those tresses, and her temper
could always be softened by stroking them down. When her
hair was brushed she would instantly sink into stillness
and look like the Sphinx. If, in passing under one of
the Egdon banks, any of its thick skeins were caught,
as they sometimes were, by a prickly tuft of the large
Ulex Europoeus--which will act as a sort of hairbrush--she
would go back a few steps, and pass against it a second time.

She had pagan eyes, full of nocturnal mysteries,
and their light, as it came and went, and came again,
was partially hampered by their oppressive lids and lashes;
and of these the under lid was much fuller than it usually
is with English women. This enabled her to indulge
in reverie without seeming to do so--she might have been
believed capable of sleeping without closing them up.
Assuming that the souls of men and women were visible essences,
you could fancy the colour of Eustacia's soul to be flamelike.
The sparks from it that rose into her dark pupils gave
the same impression.

The mouth seemed formed less to speak than to quiver,
less to quiver than to kiss. Some might have added,
less to kiss than to curl. Viewed sideways, the closing-line
of her lips formed, with almost geometric precision,
the curve so well known in the arts of design as the
cima-recta, or ogee. The sight of such a flexible
bend as that on grim Egdon was quite an apparition.
It was felt at once that the mouth did not come over
from Sleswig with a band of Saxon pirates whose lips
met like the two halves of a muffin. One had fancied
that such lip-curves were mostly lurking underground
in the South as fragments of forgotten marbles. So fine
were the lines of her lips that, though full, each corner
of her mouth was as clearly cut as the point of a spear.
This keenness of corner was only blunted when she was
given over to sudden fits of gloom, one of the phases
of the night-side of sentiment which she knew too well
for her years.

Her presence brought memories of such things as Bourbon
roses, rubies, and tropical midnight; her moods recalled
lotus-eaters and the march in Athalie; her motions,
the ebb and flow of the sea; her voice, the viola.
In a dim light, and with a slight rearrangement of her hair,
her general figure might have stood for that of either
of the higher female deities. The new moon behind her head,
an old helmet upon it, a diadem of accidental dewdrops
round her brow, would have been adjuncts sufficient to
strike the note of Artemis, Athena, or Hera respectively,
with as close an approximation to the antique as that
which passes muster on many respected canvases.

But celestial imperiousness, love, wrath, and fervour had
proved to be somewhat thrown away on netherward Egdon.
Her power was limited, and the consciousness of this
limitation had biassed her development. Egdon was
her Hades, and since coming there she had imbibed
much of what was dark in its tone, though inwardly
and eternally unreconciled thereto. Her appearance
accorded well with this smouldering rebelliousness,
and the shady splendour of her beauty was the real
surface of the sad and stifled warmth within her. A true
Tartarean dignity sat upon her brow, and not factitiously
or with marks of constraint, for it had grown in her with years.

Across the upper part of her head she wore a thin
fillet of black velvet, restraining the luxuriance
of her shady hair, in a way which added much to this
class of majesty by irregularly clouding her forehead.
"Nothing can embellish a beautiful face more than
a narrow band drawn over the brow," says Richter.
Some of the neighbouring girls wore coloured ribbon for the
same purpose, and sported metallic ornaments elsewhere;
but if anyone suggested coloured ribbon and metallic
ornaments to Eustacia Vye she laughed and went on.

Why did a woman of this sort live on Egdon Heath? Budmouth
was her native place, a fashionable seaside resort
at that date. She was the daughter of the bandmaster
of a regiment which had been quartered there--a Corfiote
by birth, and a fine musician--who met his future wife
during her trip thither with her father the captain,
a man of good family. The marriage was scarcely in accord
with the old man's wishes, for the bandmaster's pockets
were as light as his occupation. But the musician did
his best; adopted his wife's name, made England permanently
his home, took great trouble with his child's education,
the expenses of which were defrayed by the grandfather,
and throve as the chief local musician till her mother's
death, when he left off thriving, drank, and died also.
The girl was left to the care of her grandfather, who,
since three of his ribs became broken in a shipwreck,
had lived in this airy perch on Egdon, a spot which had
taken his fancy because the house was to be had for
next to nothing, and because a remote blue tinge on the
horizon between the hills, visible from the cottage door,
was traditionally believed to be the English Channel.
She hated the change; she felt like one banished;
but here she was forced to abide.

Thus it happened that in Eustacia's brain were juxtaposed
the strangest assortment of ideas, from old time and from new.
There was no middle distance in her perspective--romantic
recollections of sunny afternoons on an esplanade,
with military bands, officers, and gallants around, stood like
gilded letters upon the dark tablet of surrounding Egdon.
Every bizarre effect that could result from the random
intertwining of watering-place glitter with the grand
solemnity of a heath, was to be found in her. Seeing nothing
of human life now, she imagined all the more of what she had seen.

Where did her dignity come from? By a latent vein
from Alcinous' line, her father hailing from Phaeacia's
isle?--or from Fitzalan and De Vere, her maternal grandfather
having had a cousin in the peerage? Perhaps it was the
gift of Heaven--a happy convergence of natural laws.
Among other things opportunity had of late years been denied
her of learning to be undignified, for she lived lonely.
Isolation on a heath renders vulgarity well-nigh impossible.
It would have been as easy for the heath-ponies, bats,
and snakes to be vulgar as for her. A narrow life
in Budmouth might have completely demeaned her.

The only way to look queenly without realms or hearts
to queen it over is to look as if you had lost them;
and Eustacia did that to a triumph. In the captain's
cottage she could suggest mansions she had never seen.
Perhaps that was because she frequented a vaster mansion
than any of them, the open hills. Like the summer condition
of the place around her, she was an embodiment of the
phrase "a populous solitude"--apparently so listless,
void, and quiet, she was really busy and full.

To be loved to madness--such was her great desire.
Love was to her the one cordial which could drive away
the eating loneliness of her days. And she seemed to long
for the abstraction called passionate love more than for
any particular lover.

She could show a most reproachful look at times, but it
was directed less against human beings than against certain
creatures of her mind, the chief of these being Destiny,
through whose interference she dimly fancied it arose
that love alighted only on gliding youth--that any love
she might win would sink simultaneously with the sand
in the glass. She thought of it with an ever-growing
consciousness of cruelty, which tended to breed actions
of reckless unconventionality, framed to snatch a year's,
a week's, even an hour's passion from anywhere while it
could be won. Through want of it she had sung without
being merry, possessed without enjoying, outshone
without triumphing. Her loneliness deepened her desire.
On Egdon, coldest and meanest kisses were at famine prices,
and where was a mouth matching hers to be found?

Fidelity in love for fidelity's sake had less attraction
for her than for most women; fidelity because of love's grip
had much. A blaze of love, and extinction, was better than
a lantern glimmer of the same which should last long years.
On this head she knew by prevision what most women learn
only by experience--she had mentally walked round love,
told the towers thereof, considered its palaces, and concluded
that love was but a doleful joy. Yet she desired it,
as one in a desert would be thankful for brackish water.

She often repeated her prayers; not at particular times, but,
like the unaffectedly devout, when she desired to pray.
Her prayer was always spontaneous, and often ran thus,
"O deliver my heart from this fearful gloom and loneliness;
send me great love from somewhere, else I shall die."

Her high gods were William the Conqueror, Strafford,
and Napoleon Buonaparte, as they had appeared in the Lady's
History used at the establishment in which she was educated.
Had she been a mother she would have christened her boys
such names as Saul or Sisera in preference to Jacob or David,
neither of whom she admired. At school she had used to side
with the Philistines in several battles, and had wondered
if Pontius Pilate were as handsome as he was frank and fair.

Thus she was a girl of some forwardness of mind, indeed,
weighed in relation to her situation among the very
rearward of thinkers, very original. Her instincts
towards social non-comformity were at the root of this.
In the matter of holidays, her mood was that of horses who,
when turned out to grass, enjoy looking upon their kind
at work on the highway. She only valued rest to herself
when it came in the midst of other people's labour.
Hence she hated Sundays when all was at rest, and often
said they would be the death of her. To see the heathmen
in their Sunday condition, that is, with their hands
in their pockets, their boots newly oiled, and not laced
up (a particularly Sunday sign), walking leisurely among
the turves and furze-faggots they had cut during the week,
and kicking them critically as if their use were unknown,
was a fearful heaviness to her. To relieve the tedium
of this untimely day she would overhaul the cupboards
containing her grandfather's old charts and other rubbish,
humming Saturday-night ballads of the country people the while.
But on Saturday nights she would frequently sing a psalm,
and it was always on a weekday that she read the Bible,
that she might be unoppressed with a sense of doing
her duty.

Such views of life were to some extent the natural
begettings of her situation upon her nature. To dwell
on a heath without studying its meanings was like wedding
a foreigner without learning his tongue. The subtle
beauties of the heath were lost to Eustacia; she only
caught its vapours. An environment which would have made
a contented woman a poet, a suffering woman a devotee,
a pious woman a psalmist, even a giddy woman thoughtful,
made a rebellious woman saturnine.

Eustacia had got beyond the vision of some marriage
of inexpressible glory; yet, though her emotions were
in full vigour, she cared for no meaner union. Thus we
see her in a strange state of isolation. To have lost
the godlike conceit that we may do what we will, and not
to have acquired a homely zest for doing what we can,
shows a grandeur of temper which cannot be objected to in
the abstract, for it denotes a mind that, though disappointed,
forswears compromise. But, if congenial to philosophy,
it is apt to be dangerous to the commonwealth. In a world
where doing means marrying, and the commonwealth is one
of hearts and hands, the same peril attends the condition.

And so we see our Eustacia--for at times she was not
altogether unlovable--arriving at that stage of enlightenment
which feels that nothing is worth while, and filling up
the spare hours of her existence by idealizing Wildeve
for want of a better object. This was the sole reason
of his ascendency: she knew it herself. At moments her
pride rebelled against her passion for him, and she even
had longed to be free. But there was only one circumstance
which could dislodge him, and that was the advent of a greater man.

For the rest, she suffered much from depression of spirits,
and took slow walks to recover them, in which she carried
her grandfather's telescope and her grandmother's
hourglass--the latter because of a peculiar pleasure she
derived from watching a material representation of time's
gradual glide away. She seldom schemed, but when she
did scheme, her plans showed rather the comprehensive
strategy of a general than the small arts called womanish,
though she could utter oracles of Delphian ambiguity
when she did not choose to be direct. In heaven she
will probably sit between the Heloises and the Cleopatras.





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