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The placid inhabitants of the parish of Welland, including warbling
waggoners, lone shepherds, ploughmen, the blacksmith, the carpenter,
the gardener at the Great House, the steward and agent, the parson,
clerk, and so on, were hourly expecting the announcement of St.
Cleeve's death. The sexton had been going to see his brother-in-
law, nine miles distant, but promptly postponed the visit for a few
days, that there might be the regular professional hand present to
toll the bell in a note of due fulness and solemnity; an attempt by
a deputy, on a previous occasion of his absence, having degenerated
into a miserable stammering clang that was a disgrace to the parish.

But Swithin St. Cleeve did not decease, a fact of which, indeed, the
habituated reader will have been well aware ever since the rain came
down upon the young man in the ninth chapter, and led to his
alarming illness. Though, for that matter, so many maimed histories
are hourly enacting themselves in this dun-coloured world as to lend
almost a priority of interest to narratives concerning those

'Who lay great bases for eternity
Which prove more short than waste or ruining.'

How it arose that he did not die was in this wise; and his example
affords another instance of that reflex rule of the vassal soul over
the sovereign body, which, operating so wonderfully in elastic
natures, and more or less in all, originally gave rise to the legend
that supremacy lay on the other side.

The evening of the day after the tender, despairing, farewell kiss
of Lady Constantine, when he was a little less weak than during her
visit, he lay with his face to the window. He lay alone, quiet and
resigned. He had been thinking, sometimes of her and other friends,
but chiefly of his lost discovery. Although nearly unconscious at
the time, he had yet been aware of that kiss, as the delicate flush
which followed it upon his cheek would have told; but he had
attached little importance to it as between woman and man. Had he
been dying of love instead of wet weather, perhaps the impulsive act
of that handsome lady would have been seized on as a proof that his
love was returned. As it was her kiss seemed but the evidence of a
naturally demonstrative kindliness, felt towards him chiefly because
he was believed to be leaving her for ever.

The reds of sunset passed, and dusk drew on. Old Hannah came
upstairs to pull down the blinds and as she advanced to the window
he said to her, in a faint voice, 'Well, Hannah, what news to-day?'

'Oh, nothing, sir,' Hannah replied, looking out of the window with
sad apathy, 'only that there's a comet, they say.'

'A WHAT?' said the dying astronomer, starting up on his elbow.

'A comet--that's all, Master Swithin,' repeated Hannah, in a lower
voice, fearing she had done harm in some way.

'Well, tell me, tell me!' cried Swithin. 'Is it Gambart's? Is it
Charles the Fifth's, or Halley's, or Faye's, or whose?'

'Hush!' said she, thinking St. Cleeve slightly delirious again.
''Tis God A'mighty's, of course. I haven't seed en myself, but they
say he's getting bigger every night, and that he'll be the biggest
one known for fifty years when he's full growed. There, you must
not talk any more now, or I'll go away.'

Here was an amazing event, little noise as it had made in the
happening. Of all phenomena that he had longed to witness during
his short astronomical career, those appertaining to comets had
excited him most. That the magnificent comet of 1811 would not
return again for thirty centuries had been quite a permanent regret
with him. And now, when the bottomless abyss of death seemed
yawning beneath his feet, one of these much-desired apparitions, as
large, apparently, as any of its tribe, had chosen to show itself.

'O, if I could but live to see that comet through my equatorial!' he
cried.

Compared with comets, variable stars, which he had hitherto made his
study, were, from their remoteness, uninteresting. They were to the
former as the celebrities of Ujiji or Unyamwesi to the celebrities
of his own country. Members of the solar system, these dazzling and
perplexing rangers, the fascination of all astronomers, rendered
themselves still more fascinating by the sinister suspicion
attaching to them of being possibly the ultimate destroyers of the
human race. In his physical prostration St. Cleeve wept bitterly at
not being hale and strong enough to welcome with proper honour the
present specimen of these desirable visitors.

The strenuous wish to live and behold the new phenomenon,
supplanting the utter weariness of existence that he had heretofore
experienced, gave him a new vitality. The crisis passed; there was
a turn for the better; and after that he rapidly mended. The comet
had in all probability saved his life. The limitless and complex
wonders of the sky resumed their old power over his imagination; the
possibilities of that unfathomable blue ocean were endless. Finer
feats than ever he would perform were to be achieved in its
investigation. What Lady Constantine had said, that for one
discovery made ten awaited making, was strikingly verified by the
sudden appearance of this splendid marvel.

The windows of St. Cleeve's bedroom faced the west, and nothing
would satisfy him but that his bed should be so pulled round as to
give him a view of the low sky, in which the as yet minute tadpole
of fire was recognizable. The mere sight of it seemed to lend him
sufficient resolution to complete his own cure forthwith. His only
fear now was lest, from some unexpected cause or other, the comet
would vanish before he could get to the observatory on Rings-Hill
Speer.

In his fervour to begin observing he directed that an old telescope,
which he had used in his first celestial attempts, should be tied at
one end to the bed-post, and at the other fixed near his eye as he
reclined. Equipped only with this rough improvisation he began to
take notes. Lady Constantine was forgotten, till one day, suddenly,
wondering if she knew of the important phenomenon, he revolved in
his mind whether as a fellow-student and sincere friend of his she
ought not to be sent for, and instructed in the use of the
equatorial.

But though the image of Lady Constantine, in spite of her kindness
and unmistakably warm heart, had been obscured in his mind by the
heavenly body, she had not so readily forgotten him. Too shy to
repeat her visit after so nearly betraying her secret, she yet,
every day, by the most ingenious and subtle means that could be
devised by a woman who feared for herself, but could not refrain
from tampering with danger, ascertained the state of her young
friend's health. On hearing of the turn in his condition she
rejoiced on his account, and became yet more despondent on her own.
If he had died she might have mused on him as her dear departed
saint without much sin: but his return to life was a delight that
bewildered and dismayed.

One evening a little later on he was sitting at his bedroom window
as usual, waiting for a sufficient decline of light to reveal the
comet's form, when he beheld, crossing the field contiguous to the
house, a figure which he knew to be hers. He thought she must be
coming to see him on the great comet question, to discuss which with
so delightful and kind a comrade was an expectation full of
pleasure. Hence he keenly observed her approach, till something
happened that surprised him.

When, at the descent of the hill, she had reached the stile that
admitted to Mrs. Martin's garden, Lady Constantine stood quite still
for a minute or more, her gaze bent on the ground. Instead of
coming on to the house she went heavily and slowly back, almost as
if in pain; and then at length, quickening her pace, she was soon
out of sight. She appeared in the path no more that day.





Two on a Tower by Thomas Hardy
Category:
General Fiction
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