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Chapter 8 : Those Who Are Found Where There Is Said to Be Nobody


As soon as the sad little boy had withdrawn from the fire
he clasped the money tight in the palm of his hand,
as if thereby to fortify his courage, and began to run.
There was really little danger in allowing a child to go
home alone on this part of Egdon Heath. The distance to
the boy's house was not more than three-eighths of a mile,
his father's cottage, and one other a few yards further on,
forming part of the small hamlet of Mistover Knap: the
third and only remaining house was that of Captain Vye
and Eustacia, which stood quite away from the small cottages.
and was the loneliest of lonely houses on these thinly
populated slopes.

He ran until he was out of breath, and then, becoming
more courageous, walked leisurely along, singing in an old
voice a little song about a sailor-boy and a fair one,
and bright gold in store. In the middle of this the child
stopped--from a pit under the hill ahead of him shone a light,
whence proceeded a cloud of floating dust and a smacking noise.

Only unusual sights and sounds frightened the boy.
The shrivelled voice of the heath did not alarm him,
for that was familiar. The thornbushes which arose
in his path from time to time were less satisfactory,
for they whistled gloomily, and had a ghastly habit
after dark of putting on the shapes of jumping madmen,
sprawling giants, and hideous cripples. Lights were not
uncommon this evening, but the nature of all of them
was different from this. Discretion rather than terror
prompted the boy to turn back instead of passing the light,
with a view of asking Miss Eustacia Vye to let her servant
accompany him home.

When the boy had reascended to the top of the valley
he found the fire to be still burning on the bank,
though lower than before. Beside it, instead of Eustacia's
solitary form, he saw two persons, the second being a man.
The boy crept along under the bank to ascertain from
the nature of the proceedings if it would be prudent
to interrupt so splendid a creature as Miss Eustacia
on his poor trivial account.

After listening under the bank for some minutes to the talk
he turned in a perplexed and doubting manner and began
to withdraw as silently as he had come. That he did not,
upon the whole, think it advisable to interrupt her
conversation with Wildeve, without being prepared to bear
the whole weight of her displeasure, was obvious.

Here was a Scyllaeo-Charybdean position for a poor boy.
Pausing when again safe from discovery, he finally
decided to face the pit phenomenon as the lesser evil.
With a heavy sigh he retraced the slope, and followed
the path he had followed before.

The light had gone, the rising dust had disappeared--he hoped
for ever. He marched resolutely along, and found nothing
to alarm him till, coming within a few yards of the sandpit,
he heard a slight noise in front, which led him to halt.
The halt was but momentary, for the noise resolved itself
into the steady bites of two animals grazing.

"Two he'th-croppers down here," he said aloud.
"I have never known 'em come down so far afore."

The animals were in the direct line of his path,
but that the child thought little of; he had played
round the fetlocks of horses from his infancy.
On coming nearer, however, the boy was somewhat surprised
to find that the little creatures did not run off,
and that each wore a clog, to prevent his going astray;
this signified that they had been broken in. He could
now see the interior of the pit, which, being in the side
of the hill, had a level entrance. In the innermost
corner the square outline of a van appeared, with its
back towards him. A light came from the interior,
and threw a moving shadow upon the vertical face of gravel
at the further side of the pit into which the vehicle faced.

The child assumed that this was the cart of a gipsy,
and his dread of those wanderers reached but to that
mild pitch which titillates rather than pains.
Only a few inches of mud wall kept him and his family
from being gipsies themselves. He skirted the gravel
pit at a respectful distance, ascended the slope,
and came forward upon the brow, in order to look into
the open door of the van and see the original of the shadow.

The picture alarmed the boy. By a little stove inside
the van sat a figure red from head to heels--the man who
had been Thomasin's friend. He was darning a stocking,
which was red like the rest of him. Moreover, as he
darned he smoked a pipe, the stem and bowl of which were
red also.

At this moment one of the heath-croppers feeding in the
outer shadows was audibly shaking off the clog attached
to its foot. Aroused by the sound, the reddleman laid
down his stocking, lit a lantern which hung beside him,
and came out from the van. In sticking up the candle
he lifted the lantern to his face, and the light shone
into the whites of his eyes and upon his ivory teeth,
which, in contrast with the red surrounding, lent him
a startling aspect enough to the gaze of a juvenile.
The boy knew too well for his peace of mind upon whose lair
he had lighted. Uglier persons than gipsies were known
to cross Egdon at times, and a reddleman was one of them.

"How I wish 'twas only a gipsy!" he murmured.

The man was by this time coming back from the horses.
In his fear of being seen the boy rendered detection certain
by nervous motion. The heather and peat stratum overhung
the brow of the pit in mats, hiding the actual verge.
The boy had stepped beyond the solid ground; the heather
now gave way, and down he rolled over the scarp of grey sand
to the very foot of the man.

The red man opened the lantern and turned it upon
the figure of the prostrate boy.

"Who be ye?" he said.

"Johnny Nunsuch, master!"

"What were you doing up there?"

"I don't know."

"Watching me, I suppose?"

"Yes, master."

"What did you watch me for?"

"Because I was coming home from Miss Vye's bonfire."

"Beest hurt?"

"No."

"Why, yes, you be--your hand is bleeding. Come under
my tilt and let me tie it up."

"Please let me look for my sixpence."

"How did you come by that?"

"Miss Vye gied it to me for keeping up her bonfire."

The sixpence was found, and the man went to the van,
the boy behind, almost holding his breath.

The man took a piece of rag from a satchel containing
sewing materials, tore off a strip, which, like everything
else, was tinged red, and proceeded to bind up the wound.

"My eyes have got foggy-like--please may I sit down,
master?" said the boy.

"To be sure, poor chap. 'Tis enough to make you feel fainty.
Sit on that bundle."

The man finished tying up the gash, and the boy said,
"I think I'll go home now, master."

"You are rather afraid of me. Do you know what I be?"

The child surveyed his vermilion figure up and down
with much misgiving and finally said, "Yes."

"Well, what?"

"The reddleman!" he faltered.

"Yes, that's what I be. Though there's more than one.
You little children think there's only one cuckoo, one fox,
one giant, one devil, and one reddleman, when there's lots
of us all."

"Is there? You won't carry me off in your bags, will ye,
master? 'Tis said that the reddleman will sometimes."

"Nonsense. All that reddlemen do is sell reddle.
You see all these bags at the back of my cart? They are
not full of little boys--only full of red stuff."

"Was you born a reddleman?"

"No, I took to it. I should be as white as you if I
were to give up the trade--that is, I should be white
in time--perhaps six months; not at first, because 'tis
grow'd into my skin and won't wash out. Now, you'll never
be afraid of a reddleman again, will ye?"

"No, never. Willy Orchard said he seed a red ghost
here t'other day--perhaps that was you?"

"I was here t'other day."

"Were you making that dusty light I saw by now?"

"Oh yes, I was beating out some bags. And have you had a good
bonfire up there? I saw the light. Why did Miss Vye want
a bonfire so bad that she should give you sixpence to keep it up?"

"I don't know. I was tired, but she made me bide
and keep up the fire just the same, while she kept
going up across Rainbarrow way."

"And how long did that last?"

"Until a hopfrog jumped into the pond."

The reddleman suddenly ceased to talk idly. "A hopfrog?"
he inquired. "Hopfrogs don't jump into ponds this time
of year."

"They do, for I heard one."

"Certain-sure?"

"Yes. She told me afore that I should hear'n; and so I did.
They say she's clever and deep, and perhaps she charmed
'en to come."

"And what then?"

"Then I came down here, and I was afeard, and I went back;
but I didn't like to speak to her, because of the gentleman,
and I came on here again."

"A gentleman--ah! What did she say to him, my man?"

"Told him she supposed he had not married the other woman
because he liked his old sweetheart best; and things
like that."

"What did the gentleman say to her, my sonny?"

"He only said he did like her best, and how he was coming
to see her again under Rainbarrow o' nights."

"Ha!" cried the reddleman, slapping his hand against the side
of his van so that the whole fabric shook under the blow.
"That's the secret o't!"

The little boy jumped clean from the stool.

"My man, don't you be afraid," said the dealer in red,
suddenly becoming gentle. "I forgot you were here.
That's only a curious way reddlemen have of going mad
for a moment; but they don't hurt anybody. And what did
the lady say then?"

"I can't mind. Please, Master Reddleman, may I go
home-along now?"

"Ay, to be sure you may. I'll go a bit of ways with you."

He conducted the boy out of the gravel pit and into the path
leading to his mother's cottage. When the little figure
had vanished in the darkness the reddleman returned,
resumed his seat by the fire, and proceeded to darn again.





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