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XII

On the afternoon of the next day Mr. Torkingham, who occasionally
dropped in to see St. Cleeve, called again as usual; after duly
remarking on the state of the weather, congratulating him on his
sure though slow improvement, and answering his inquiries about the
comet, he said, 'You have heard, I suppose, of what has happened to
Lady Constantine?'

'No! Nothing serious?'

'Yes, it is serious.' The parson informed him of the death of Sir
Blount, and of the accidents which had hindered all knowledge of the
same,--accidents favoured by the estrangement of the pair and the
cessation of correspondence between them for some time.

His listener received the news with the concern of a friend, Lady
Constantine's aspect in his eyes depending but little on her
condition matrimonially.

'There was no attempt to bring him home when he died?'

'O no. The climate necessitates instant burial. We shall have more
particulars in a day or two, doubtless.'

'Poor Lady Constantine,--so good and so sensitive as she is! I
suppose she is quite prostrated by the bad news.'

'Well, she is rather serious,--not prostrated. The household is
going into mourning.'

'Ah, no, she would not be quite prostrated,' murmured Swithin,
recollecting himself. 'He was unkind to her in many ways. Do you
think she will go away from Welland?'

That the vicar could not tell. But he feared that Sir Blount's
affairs had been in a seriously involved condition, which might
necessitate many and unexpected changes.

Time showed that Mr. Torkingham's surmises were correct.

During the long weeks of early summer, through which the young man
still lay imprisoned, if not within his own chamber, within the
limits of the house and garden, news reached him that Sir Blount's
mismanagement and eccentric behaviour were resulting in serious
consequences to Lady Constantine; nothing less, indeed, than her
almost complete impoverishment. His personalty was swallowed up in
paying his debts, and the Welland estate was so heavily charged with
annuities to his distant relatives that only a mere pittance was
left for her. She was reducing the establishment to the narrowest
compass compatible with decent gentility. The horses were sold one
by one; the carriages also; the greater part of the house was shut
up, and she resided in the smallest rooms. All that was allowed to
remain of her former contingent of male servants were an odd man and
a boy. Instead of using a carriage she now drove about in a donkey-
chair, the said boy walking in front to clear the way and keep the
animal in motion; while she wore, so his informants reported, not an
ordinary widow's cap or bonnet, but something even plainer, the
black material being drawn tightly round her face, giving her
features a small, demure, devout cast, very pleasing to the eye.

'Now, what's the most curious thing in this, Mr. San Cleeve,' said
Sammy Blore, who, in calling to inquire after Swithin's health, had
imparted some of the above particulars, 'is that my lady seems not
to mind being a pore woman half so much as we do at seeing her so.
'Tis a wonderful gift, Mr. San Cleeve, wonderful, to be able to
guide yerself, and not let loose yer soul in blasting at such a
misfortune. I should go and drink neat regular, as soon as I had
swallered my breakfast, till my innerds was burnt out like a' old
copper, if it had happened to me; but my lady's plan is best.
Though I only guess how one feels in such losses, to be sure, for I
never had nothing to lose.'

Meanwhile the observatory was not forgotten; nor that visitant of
singular shape and habits which had appeared in the sky from no one
knew whence, trailing its luminous streamer, and proceeding on its
way in the face of a wondering world, till it should choose to
vanish as suddenly as it had come.

When, about a month after the above dialogue took place, Swithin was
allowed to go about as usual, his first pilgrimage was to the Rings-
Hill Speer. Here he studied at leisure what he had come to see.

On his return to the homestead, just after sunset, he found his
grandmother and Hannah in a state of great concern. The former was
looking out for him against the evening light, her face showing
itself worn and rutted, like an old highway, by the passing of many
days. Her information was that in his absence Lady Constantine had
called in her driving-chair, to inquire for him. Her ladyship had
wished to observe the comet through the great telescope, but had
found the door locked when she applied at the tower. Would he
kindly leave the door unfastened to-morrow, she had asked, that she
might be able to go to the column on the following evening for the
same purpose? She did not require him to attend.

During the next day he sent Hannah with the key to Welland House,
not caring to leave the tower open. As evening advanced and the
comet grew distinct, he doubted if Lady Constantine could handle the
telescope alone with any pleasure or profit to herself. Unable, as
a devotee to science, to rest under this misgiving, he crossed the
field in the furrow that he had used ever since the corn was sown,
and entered the plantation. His unpractised mind never once guessed
that her stipulations against his coming might have existed along
with a perverse hope that he would come.

On ascending he found her already there. She sat in the observing-
chair: the warm light from the west, which flowed in through the
opening of the dome, brightened her face, and her face only, her
robes of sable lawn rendering the remainder of her figure almost
invisible.

'You have come!' she said with shy pleasure. 'I did not require
you. But never mind.' She extended her hand cordially to him.

Before speaking he looked at her with a great new interest in his
eye. It was the first time that he had seen her thus, and she was
altered in more than dress. A soberly-sweet expression sat on her
face. It was of a rare and peculiar shade--something that he had
never seen before in woman.

'Have you nothing to say?' she continued. 'Your footsteps were
audible to me from the very bottom, and I knew they were yours. You
look almost restored.'

'I am almost restored,' he replied, respectfully pressing her hand.
'A reason for living arose, and I lived.'

'What reason?' she inquired, with a rapid blush.

He pointed to the rocket-like object in the western sky.

'Oh, you mean the comet. Well, you will never make a courtier! You
know, of course, what has happened to me; that I have no longer a
husband--have had none for a year and a half. Have you also heard
that I am now quite a poor woman? Tell me what you think of it.'

'I have thought very little of it since I heard that you seemed to
mind poverty but little. There is even this good in it, that I may
now be able to show you some little kindness for all those you have
done me, my dear lady.'

'Unless for economy's sake, I go and live abroad, at Dinan,
Versailles, or Boulogne.'

Swithin, who had never thought of such a contingency, was earnest in
his regrets; without, however, showing more than a sincere friend's
disappointment.

'I did not say it was absolutely necessary,' she continued. 'I
have, in fact, grown so homely and home-loving, I am so interested
in the place and the people here, that, in spite of advice, I have
almost determined not to let the house; but to continue the less
business-like but pleasanter alternative of living humbly in a part
of it, and shutting up the rest.'

'Your love of astronomy is getting as strong as mine!' he said
ardently. 'You could not tear yourself away from the observatory!'

'You might have supposed me capable of a little human feeling as
well as scientific, in connection with the observatory.'

'Dear Lady Constantine, by admitting that your astronomer has also a
part of your interest--'

'Ah, you did not find it out without my telling!' she said, with a
playfulness which was scarcely playful, a new accession of pinkness
being visible in her face. 'I diminish myself in your esteem by
reminding you.'

'You might do anything in this world without diminishing yourself in
my esteem, after the goodness you have shown. And more than that,
no misrepresentation, no rumour, no damning appearance whatever
would ever shake my loyalty to you.'

'But you put a very matter-of-fact construction on my motives
sometimes. You see me in such a hard light that I have to drop
hints in quite a manoeuvring manner to let you know I am as
sympathetic as other people. I sometimes think you would rather
have me die than have your equatorial stolen. Confess that your
admiration for me was based on my house and position in the county!
Now I am shorn of all that glory, such as it was, and am a widow,
and am poorer than my tenants, and can no longer buy telescopes, and
am unable, from the narrowness of my circumstances, to mix in
circles that people formerly said I adorned, I fear I have lost the
little hold I once had over you.'

'You are as unjust now as you have been generous hitherto,' said St.
Cleeve, with tears in his eyes at the gentle banter of the lady,
which he, poor innocent, read as her real opinions. Seizing her
hand he continued, in tones between reproach and anger, 'I swear to
you that I have but two devotions, two thoughts, two hopes, and two
blessings in this world, and that one of them is yourself!'

'And the other?'

'The pursuit of astronomy.'

'And astronomy stands first.'

'I have never ordinated two such dissimilar ideas. And why should
you deplore your altered circumstances, my dear lady? Your
widowhood, if I may take the liberty to speak on such a subject, is,
though I suppose a sadness, not perhaps an unmixed evil. For though
your pecuniary troubles have been discovered to the world and
yourself by it, your happiness in marriage was, as you have confided
to me, not great; and you are now left free as a bird to follow your
own hobbies.'

'I wonder you recognize that.'

'But perhaps,' he added, with a sigh of regret, 'you will again fall
a prey to some man, some uninteresting country squire or other, and
be lost to the scientific world after all.'

'If I fall a prey to any man, it will not be to a country squire.
But don't go on with this, for heaven's sake! You may think what
you like in silence.'

'We are forgetting the comet,' said St. Cleeve. He turned, and set
the instrument in order for observation, and wheeled round the dome.

While she was looking at the nucleus of the fiery plume, that now
filled so large a space of the sky as completely to dominate it,
Swithin dropped his gaze upon the field, and beheld in the dying
light a number of labourers crossing directly towards the column.

'What do you see?' Lady Constantine asked, without ceasing to
observe the comet.

'Some of the work-folk are coming this way. I know what they are
coming for,--I promised to let them look at the comet through the
glass.'

'They must not come up here,' she said decisively.

'They shall await your time.'

'I have a special reason for wishing them not to see me here. If
you ask why, I can tell you. They mistakenly suspect my interest to
be less in astronomy than in the astronomer, and they must have no
showing for such a wild notion. What can you do to keep them out?'

'I'll lock the door,' said Swithin. 'They will then think I am
away.' He ran down the staircase, and she could hear him hastily
turning the key. Lady Constantine sighed.

'What weakness, what weakness!' she said to herself. 'That envied
power of self-control, where is it? That power of concealment which
a woman should have--where? To run such risks, to come here alone,-
-oh, if it were known! But I was always so,--always!'

She jumped up, and followed him downstairs.





Two on a Tower by Thomas Hardy
Category:
General Fiction
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