eBooks Cube
 
XI

Why had Lady Constantine stopped and turned?

A misgiving had taken sudden possession of her. Her true sentiment
towards St. Cleeve was too recognizable by herself to be tolerated.

That she had a legitimate interest in him as a young astronomer was
true; that her sympathy on account of his severe illness had been
natural and commendable was also true. But the superfluous feeling
was what filled her with trepidation.

Superfluities have been defined as things you cannot do without, and
this particular emotion, that came not within her rightful measure,
was in danger of becoming just such a superfluity with her. In
short, she felt there and then that to see St. Cleeve again would be
an impropriety; and by a violent effort she retreated from his
precincts, as he had observed.

She resolved to ennoble her conduct from that moment of her life
onwards. She would exercise kind patronage towards Swithin without
once indulging herself with his company. Inexpressibly dear to her
deserted heart he was becoming, but for the future he should at
least be hidden from her eyes. To speak plainly, it was growing a
serious question whether, if he were not hidden from her eyes, she
would not soon be plunging across the ragged boundary which divides
the permissible from the forbidden.

By the time that she had drawn near home the sun was going down.
The heavy, many-chevroned church, now subdued by violet shadow
except where its upper courses caught the western stroke of flame-
colour, stood close to her grounds, as in many other parishes,
though the village of which it formerly was the nucleus had become
quite depopulated: its cottages had been demolished to enlarge the
park, leaving the old building to stand there alone, like a standard
without an army.

It was Friday night, and she heard the organist practising
voluntaries within. The hour, the notes, the even-song of the
birds, and her own previous emotions, combined to influence her
devotionally. She entered, turning to the right and passing under
the chancel arch, where she sat down and viewed the whole empty
length, east and west. The semi-Norman arches of the nave, with
their multitudinous notchings, were still visible by the light from
the tower window, but the lower portion of the building was in
obscurity, except where the feeble glimmer from the candle of the
organist spread a glow-worm radiance around. The player, who was
Miss Tabitha Lark, continued without intermission to produce her
wandering sounds, unconscious of any one's presence except that of
the youthful blower at her side.

The rays from the organist's candle illuminated but one small
fragment of the chancel outside the precincts of the instrument, and
that was the portion of the eastern wall whereon the ten
commandments were inscribed. The gilt letters shone sternly into
Lady Constantine's eyes; and she, being as impressionable as a
turtle-dove, watched a certain one of those commandments on the
second table, till its thunder broke her spirit with blank
contrition.

She knelt down, and did her utmost to eradicate those impulses
towards St. Cleeve which were inconsistent with her position as the
wife of an absent man, though not unnatural in her as his victim.

She knelt till she seemed scarcely to belong to the time she lived
in, which lost the magnitude that the nearness of its perspective
lent it on ordinary occasions, and took its actual rank in the long
line of other centuries. Having once got out of herself, seen
herself from afar off, she was calmer, and went on to register a
magnanimous vow. She would look about for some maiden fit and
likely to make St. Cleeve happy; and this girl she would endow with
what money she could afford, that the natural result of their
apposition should do him no worldly harm. The interest of her, Lady
Constantine's, life should be in watching the development of love
between Swithin and the ideal maiden. The very painfulness of the
scheme to her susceptible heart made it pleasing to her conscience;
and she wondered that she had not before this time thought of a
stratagem which united the possibility of benefiting the astronomer
with the advantage of guarding against peril to both Swithin and
herself. By providing for him a suitable helpmate she would
preclude the dangerous awakening in him of sentiments reciprocating
her own.

Arrived at a point of exquisite misery through this heroic
intention, Lady Constantine's tears moistened the books upon which
her forehead was bowed. And as she heard her feverish heart throb
against the desk, she firmly believed the wearing impulses of that
heart would put an end to her sad life, and momentarily recalled the
banished image of St. Cleeve to apostrophise him in thoughts that
paraphrased the quaint lines of Heine's Lieb' Liebchen:--

'Dear my love, press thy hand to my breast, and tell
If thou tracest the knocks in that narrow cell;
A carpenter dwells there; cunning is he,
And slyly he's shaping a coffin for me!'

Lady Constantine was disturbed by a break in the organist's
meandering practice, and raising her head she saw a person standing
by the player. It was Mr. Torkingham, and what he said was
distinctly audible. He was inquiring for herself.

'I thought I saw Lady Constantine walk this way,' he rejoined to
Tabitha's negative. 'I am very anxious indeed to meet with her.'

She went forward. 'I am here,' she said. 'Don't stop playing, Miss
Lark. What is it, Mr. Torkingham?'

Tabitha thereupon resumed her playing, and Mr. Torkingham joined
Lady Constantine.

'I have some very serious intelligence to break to your ladyship,'
he said. 'But--I will not interrupt you here.' (He had seen her
rise from her knees to come to him.) 'I will call at the House the
first moment you can receive me after reaching home.'

'No, tell me here,' she said, seating herself.

He came close, and placed his hand on the poppy-head of the seat.

'I have received a communication,' he resumed haltingly, 'in which I
am requested to prepare you for the contents of a letter that you
will receive to-morrow morning.'

'I am quite ready.'

'The subject is briefly this, Lady Constantine: that you have been
a widow for more than eighteen months.'

'Dead!'

'Yes. Sir Blount was attacked by dysentery and malarious fever, on
the banks of the Zouga in South Africa, so long ago as last October
twelvemonths, and it carried him off. Of the three men who were
with him, two succumbed to the same illness, a hundred miles further
on; while the third, retracing his steps into a healthier district,
remained there with a native tribe, and took no pains to make the
circumstances known. It seems to be only by the mere accident of
his having told some third party that we know of the matter now.
This is all I can tell you at present.'

She was greatly agitated for a few moments; and the Table of the Law
opposite, which now seemed to appertain to another dispensation,
glistened indistinctly upon a vision still obscured by the old
tears.

'Shall I conduct you home?' asked the parson.

'No thank you,' said Lady Constantine. 'I would rather go alone.'





Two on a Tower by Thomas Hardy
Category:
General Fiction
Nabou.com: the big site