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XVI

After this there only remained to be settled between them the
practical details of the project.

These were that he should leave home in a couple of days, and take
lodgings either in the distant city of Bath or in a convenient
suburb of London, till a sufficient time should have elapsed to
satisfy legal requirements; that on a fine morning at the end of
this time she should hie away to the same place, and be met at the
station by St. Cleeve, armed with the marriage license; whence they
should at once proceed to the church fixed upon for the ceremony;
returning home independently in the course of the next two or three
days.

While these tactics were under discussion the two-and-thirty winds
of heaven continued, as before, to beat about the tower, though
their onsets appeared to be somewhat lessening in force. Himself
now calmed and satisfied, Swithin, as is the wont of humanity, took
serener views of Nature's crushing mechanics without, and said, 'The
wind doesn't seem disposed to put the tragic period to our hopes and
fears that I spoke of in my momentary despair.'

'The disposition of the wind is as vicious as ever,' she answered,
looking into his face with pausing thoughts on, perhaps, other
subjects than that discussed. 'It is your mood of viewing it that
has changed. "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking
makes it so."'

And, as if flatly to stultify Swithin's assumption, a circular
hurricane, exceeding in violence any that had preceded it, seized
hold upon Rings-Hill Speer at that moment with the determination of
a conscious agent. The first sensation of a resulting catastrophe
was conveyed to their intelligence by the flapping of the candle-
flame against the lantern-glass; then the wind, which hitherto they
had heard rather than felt, rubbed past them like a fugitive.
Swithin beheld around and above him, in place of the concavity of
the dome, the open heaven, with its racing clouds, remote horizon,
and intermittent gleam of stars. The dome that had covered the
tower had been whirled off bodily; and they heard it descend
crashing upon the trees.

Finding himself untouched Swithin stretched out his arms towards
Lady Constantine, whose apparel had been seized by the spinning air,
nearly lifting her off her legs. She, too, was as yet unharmed.
Each held the other for a moment, when, fearing that something
further would happen, they took shelter in the staircase.

'Dearest, what an escape!' he said, still holding her.

'What is the accident?' she asked. 'Has the whole top really gone?'

'The dome has been blown off the roof.'

As soon as it was practicable he relit the extinguished lantern, and
they emerged again upon the leads, where the extent of the disaster
became at once apparent. Saving the absence of the enclosing
hemisphere all remained the same. The dome, being constructed of
wood, was light by comparison with the rest of the structure, and
the wheels which allowed it horizontal, or, as Swithin expressed it,
azimuth motion, denied it a firm hold upon the walls; so that it had
been lifted off them like a cover from a pot. The equatorial stood
in the midst as it had stood before.

Having executed its grotesque purpose the wind sank to comparative
mildness. Swithin took advantage of this lull by covering up the
instruments with cloths, after which the betrothed couple prepared
to go downstairs.

But the events of the night had not yet fully disclosed themselves.
At this moment there was a sound of footsteps and a knocking at the
door below.

'It can't be for me!' said Lady Constantine. 'I retired to my room
before leaving the house, and told them on no account to disturb
me.'

She remained at the top while Swithin went down the spiral. In the
gloom he beheld Hannah.

'O Master Swithin, can ye come home! The wind have blowed down the
chimley that don't smoke, and the pinning-end with it; and the old
ancient house, that have been in your family so long as the memory
of man, is naked to the world! It is a mercy that your grammer were
not killed, sitting by the hearth, poor old soul, and soon to walk
wi' God,--for 'a 's getting wambling on her pins, Mr. Swithin, as
aged folks do. As I say, 'a was all but murdered by the elements,
and doing no more harm than the babes in the wood, nor speaking one
harmful word. And the fire and smoke were blowed all across house
like a chapter in Revelation; and your poor reverent father's
features scorched to flakes, looking like the vilest ruffian, and
the gilt frame spoiled! Every flitch, every eye-piece, and every
chine is buried under the walling; and I fed them pigs with my own
hands, Master Swithin, little thinking they would come to this end.
Do ye collect yourself, Mr. Swithin, and come at once!'

'I will,--I will. I'll follow you in a moment. Do you hasten back
again and assist.'

When Hannah had departed the young man ran up to Lady Constantine,
to whom he explained the accident. After sympathizing with old Mrs.
Martin Lady Constantine added, 'I thought something would occur to
mar our scheme!'

'I am not quite sure of that yet.'

On a short consideration with him, she agreed to wait at the top of
the tower till he could come back and inform her if the accident
were really so serious as to interfere with his plan for departure.
He then left her, and there she sat in the dark, alone, looking over
the parapet, and straining her eyes in the direction of the
homestead.

At first all was obscurity; but when he had been gone about ten
minutes lights began to move to and fro in the hollow where the
house stood, and shouts occasionally mingled with the wind, which
retained some violence yet, playing over the trees beneath her as on
the strings of a lyre. But not a bough of them was visible, a cloak
of blackness covering everything netherward; while overhead the
windy sky looked down with a strange and disguised face, the three
or four stars that alone were visible being so dissociated by clouds
that she knew not which they were. Under any other circumstances
Lady Constantine might have felt a nameless fear in thus sitting
aloft on a lonely column, with a forest groaning under her feet, and
palaeolithic dead men feeding its roots; but the recent passionate
decision stirred her pulses to an intensity beside which the
ordinary tremors of feminine existence asserted themselves in vain.
The apocalyptic effect of the scene surrounding her was, indeed, not
inharmonious, and afforded an appropriate background to her
intentions.

After what seemed to her an interminable space of time, quick steps
in the staircase became audible above the roar of the firs, and in a
few instants St. Cleeve again stood beside her.

The case of the homestead was serious. Hannah's account had not
been exaggerated in substance: the gable end of the house was open
to the garden; the joists, left without support, had dropped, and
with them the upper floor. By the help of some labourers, who lived
near, and Lady Constantine's man Anthony, who was passing at the
time, the homestead had been propped up, and protected for the night
by some rickcloths; but Swithin felt that it would be selfish in the
highest degree to leave two lonely old women to themselves at this
juncture. 'In short,' he concluded despondently, 'I cannot go to
stay in Bath or London just now; perhaps not for another fortnight!'

'Never mind,' she said. 'A fortnight hence will do as well.'

'And I have these for you,' he continued. 'Your man Green was
passing my grandmother's on his way back from Warborne, where he had
been, he says, for any letters that had come for you by the evening
post. As he stayed to assist the other men I told him I would go on
to your house with the letters he had brought. Of course I did not
tell him I should see you here.'

'Thank you. Of course not. Now I'll return at once.'

In descending the column her eye fell upon the superscription of one
of the letters, and she opened and glanced over it by the lantern
light. She seemed startled, and, musing, said, 'The postponement of
our--intention must be, I fear, for a long time. I find that after
the end of this month I cannot leave home safely, even for a day.'
Perceiving that he was about to ask why, she added, 'I will not
trouble you with the reason now; it would only harass you. It is
only a family business, and cannot be helped.'

'Then we cannot be married till--God knows when!' said Swithin
blankly. 'I cannot leave home till after the next week or two; you
cannot leave home unless within that time. So what are we to do?'

'I do not know.'

'My dear, dear one, don't let us be beaten like this! Don't let a
well-considered plan be overthrown by a mere accident! Here's a
remedy. Do YOU go and stay the requisite time in the parish we are
to be married in, instead of me. When my grandmother is again well
housed I can come to you, instead of you to me, as we first said.
Then it can be done within the time.'

Reluctantly, shyly, and yet with a certain gladness of heart, she
gave way to his proposal that they should change places in the
programme. There was much that she did not like in it, she said.
It seemed to her as if she were taking the initiative by going and
attending to the preliminaries. It was the man's part to do that,
in her opinion, and was usually undertaken by him.

'But,' argued Swithin, 'there are cases in which the woman does give
the notices, and so on; that is to say, when the man is absolutely
hindered from doing so; and ours is such a case. The seeming is
nothing; I know the truth, and what does it matter? You do not
refuse--retract your word to be my wife, because, to avoid a
sickening delay, the formalities require you to attend to them in
place of me?'

She did not refuse, she said. In short she agreed to his entreaty.
They had, in truth, gone so far in their dream of union that there
was no drawing back now. Whichever of them was forced by
circumstances to be the protagonist in the enterprise, the thing
must be done. Their intention to become husband and wife, at first
halting and timorous, had accumulated momentum with the lapse of
hours, till it now bore down every obstacle in its course.

'Since you beg me to,--since there is no alternative between my
going and a long postponement,' she said, as they stood in the dark
porch of Welland House before parting,--'since I am to go first, and
seem to be the pioneer in this adventure, promise me, Swithin,
promise your Viviette, that in years to come, when perhaps you may
not love me so warmly as you do now--'

'That will never be.'

'Well, hoping it will not, but supposing it should, promise me that
you will never reproach me as the one who took the initiative when
it should have been yourself, forgetting that it was at your
request; promise that you will never say I showed immodest readiness
to do so, or anything which may imply your obliviousness of the fact
that I act in obedience to necessity and your earnest prayer.'

Need it be said that he promised never to reproach her with that or
any other thing as long as they should live? The few details of the
reversed arrangement were soon settled, Bath being the place finally
decided on. Then, with a warm audacity which events had encouraged,
he pressed her to his breast, and she silently entered the house.
He returned to the homestead, there to attend to the unexpected
duties of repairing the havoc wrought by the gale.


That night, in the solitude of her chamber, Lady Constantine
reopened and read the subjoined letter--one of those handed to her
by St. Cleeve:--


"----- STREET, PICCADILLY,
October 15, 18--.

'DEAR VIVIETTE,--You will be surprised to learn that I am in
England, and that I am again out of harness--unless you should have
seen the latter in the papers. Rio Janeiro may do for monkeys, but
it won't do for me. Having resigned the appointment I have returned
here, as a preliminary step to finding another vent for my energies;
in other words, another milch cow for my sustenance. I knew nothing
whatever of your husband's death till two days ago; so that any
letter from you on the subject, at the time it became known, must
have miscarried. Hypocrisy at such a moment is worse than useless,
and I therefore do not condole with you, particularly as the event,
though new to a banished man like me, occurred so long since. You
are better without him, Viviette, and are now just the limb for
doing something for yourself, notwithstanding the threadbare state
in which you seem to have been cast upon the world. You are still
young, and, as I imagine (unless you have vastly altered since I
beheld you), good-looking: therefore make up your mind to retrieve
your position by a match with one of the local celebrities; and you
would do well to begin drawing neighbouring covers at once. A
genial squire, with more weight than wit, more realty than weight,
and more personalty than realty (considering the circumstances),
would be best for you. You might make a position for us both by
some such alliance; for, to tell the truth, I have had but in-and-
out luck so far. I shall be with you in little more than a
fortnight, when we will talk over the matter seriously, if you don't
object.--Your affectionate brother,
LOUIS.'


It was this allusion to her brother's coming visit which had caught
her eye in the tower staircase, and led to a modification in the
wedding arrangement.

Having read the letter through once Lady Constantine flung it aside
with an impatient little stamp that shook the decaying old floor and
casement. Its contents produced perturbation, misgiving, but not
retreat. The deep glow of enchantment shed by the idea of a private
union with her beautiful young lover killed the pale light of cold
reasoning from an indifferently good relative.

'Oh, no,' she murmured, as she sat, covering her face with her hand.
'Not for wealth untold could I give him up now!'

No argument, short of Apollo in person from the clouds, would have
influenced her. She made her preparations for departure as if
nothing had intervened.





Two on a Tower by Thomas Hardy
Category:
General Fiction
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