eBooks Cube
 
XVIII

A more beautiful October morning than that of the next day never
beamed into the Welland valleys. The yearly dissolution of leafage
was setting in apace. The foliage of the park trees rapidly
resolved itself into the multitude of complexions which mark the
subtle grades of decay, reflecting wet lights of such innumerable
hues that it was a wonder to think their beauties only a repetition
of scenes that had been exhibited there on scores of previous
Octobers, and had been allowed to pass away without a single dirge
from the imperturbable beings who walked among them. Far in the
shadows semi-opaque screens of blue haze made mysteries of the
commonest gravel-pit, dingle, or recess.

The wooden cabin at the foot of Rings-Hill Speer had been furnished
by Swithin as a sitting and sleeping apartment, some little while
before this time; for he had found it highly convenient, during
night observations at the top of the column, to remain on the spot
all night, not to disturb his grandmother by passing in and out of
the house, and to save himself the labour of incessantly crossing
the field.

He would much have liked to tell her the secret, and, had it been
his own to tell, would probably have done so; but sharing it with an
objector who knew not his grandmother's affection so well as he did
himself, there was no alternative to holding his tongue. The more
effectually to guard it he decided to sleep at the cabin during the
two or three nights previous to his departure, leaving word at the
homestead that in a day or two he was going on an excursion.

It was very necessary to start early. Long before the great eye of
the sun was lifted high enough to glance into the Welland valley,
St. Cleeve arose from his bed in the cabin and prepared to depart,
cooking his breakfast upon a little stove in the corner. The young
rabbits, littered during the foregoing summer, watched his
preparations through the open door from the grey dawn without, as he
bustled, half dressed, in and out under the boughs, and among the
blackberries and brambles that grew around.

It was a strange place for a bridegroom to perform his toilet in,
but, considering the unconventional nature of the marriage, a not
inappropriate one. What events had been enacted in that earthen
camp since it was first thrown up, nobody could say; but the
primitive simplicity of the young man's preparations accorded well
with the prehistoric spot on which they were made. Embedded under
his feet were possibly even now rude trinkets that had been worn at
bridal ceremonies of the early inhabitants. Little signified those
ceremonies to-day, or the happiness or otherwise of the contracting
parties. That his own rite, nevertheless, signified much, was the
inconsequent reasoning of Swithin, as it is of many another
bridegroom besides; and he, like the rest, went on with his
preparations in that mood which sees in his stale repetition the
wondrous possibilities of an untried move.

Then through the wet cobwebs, that hung like movable diaphragms on
each blade and bough, he pushed his way down to the furrow which led
from the secluded fir-tree island to the wide world beyond the
field.

He was not a stranger to enterprise, and still less to the
contemplation of enterprise; but an enterprise such as this he had
never even outlined. That his dear lady was troubled at the
situation he had placed her in by not going himself on that errand,
he could see from her letter; but, believing an immediate marriage
with her to be the true way of restoring to both that equanimity
necessary to serene philosophy, he held it of little account how the
marriage was brought about, and happily began his journey towards
her place of sojourn.

He passed through a little copse before leaving the parish, the
smoke from newly lit fires rising like the stems of blue trees out
of the few cottage chimneys. Here he heard a quick, familiar
footstep in the path ahead of him, and, turning the corner of the
bushes, confronted the foot-post on his way to Welland. In answer
to St. Cleeve's inquiry if there was anything for himself the
postman handed out one letter, and proceeded on his route.

Swithin opened and read the letter as he walked, till it brought him
to a standstill by the importance of its contents.

They were enough to agitate a more phlegmatic youth than he. He
leant over the wicket which came in his path, and endeavoured to
comprehend the sense of the whole.

The large long envelope contained, first, a letter from a solicitor
in a northern town, informing him that his paternal great-uncle, who
had recently returned from the Cape (whither he had gone in an
attempt to repair a broken constitution), was now dead and buried.
This great-uncle's name was like a new creation to Swithin. He had
held no communication with the young man's branch of the family for
innumerable years,--never, in fact, since the marriage of Swithin's
father with the simple daughter of Welland Farm. He had been a
bachelor to the end of his life, and had amassed a fairly good
professional fortune by a long and extensive medical practice in the
smoky, dreary, manufacturing town in which he had lived and died.
Swithin had always been taught to think of him as the embodiment of
all that was unpleasant in man. He was narrow, sarcastic, and
shrewd to unseemliness. That very shrewdness had enabled him,
without much professional profundity, to establish his large and
lucrative connexion, which lay almost entirely among a class who
neither looked nor cared for drawing-room courtesies.

However, what Dr. St. Cleeve had been as a practitioner matters
little. He was now dead, and the bulk of his property had been left
to persons with whom this story has nothing to do. But Swithin was
informed that out of it there was a bequest of 600 pounds a year to
himself,--payment of which was to begin with his twenty-first year,
and continue for his life, unless he should marry before reaching
the age of twenty-five. In the latter precocious and objectionable
event his annuity would be forfeited. The accompanying letter, said
the solicitor, would explain all.

This, the second letter, was from his uncle to himself, written
about a month before the former's death, and deposited with his
will, to be forwarded to his nephew when that event should have
taken place. Swithin read, with the solemnity that such posthumous
epistles inspire, the following words from one who, during life, had
never once addressed him:-


'DEAR NEPHEW,--You will doubtless experience some astonishment at
receiving a communication from one whom you have never personally
known, and who, when this comes into your hands, will be beyond the
reach of your knowledge. Perhaps I am the loser by this life-long
mutual ignorance. Perhaps I am much to blame for it; perhaps not.
But such reflections are profitless at this date: I have written
with quite other views than to work up a sentimental regret on such
an amazingly remote hypothesis as that the fact of a particular pair
of people not meeting, among the millions of other pairs of people
who have never met, is a great calamity either to the world in
general or to themselves.

'The occasion of my addressing you is briefly this: Nine months ago
a report casually reached me that your scientific studies were
pursued by you with great ability, and that you were a young man of
some promise as an astronomer. My own scientific proclivities
rendered the report more interesting than it might otherwise have
been to me; and it came upon me quite as a surprise that any issue
of your father's marriage should have so much in him, or you might
have seen more of me in former years than you are ever likely to do
now. My health had then begun to fail, and I was starting for the
Cape, or I should have come myself to inquire into your condition
and prospects. I did not return till six months later, and as my
health had not improved I sent a trusty friend to examine into your
life, pursuits, and circumstances, without your own knowledge, and
to report his observations to me. This he did. Through him I
learnt, of favourable news:--

'(1) That you worked assiduously at the science of astronomy.
'(2) That everything was auspicious in the career you had chosen.

'Of unfavourable news:--

'(1) That the small income at your command, even when eked out by
the sum to which you would be entitled on your grandmother's death
and the freehold of the homestead, would be inadequate to support
you becomingly as a scientific man, whose lines of work were of a
nature not calculated to produce emoluments for many years, if ever.
'(2) That there was something in your path worse than narrow means,
and that that something was a WOMAN.

'To save you, if possible, from ruin on these heads, I take the
preventive measures detailed below.

'The chief step is, as my solicitor will have informed you, that, at
the age of twenty-five, the sum of 600 pounds a year be settled on
you for life, provided you have not married before reaching that
age;--a yearly gift of an equal sum to be also provisionally made to
you in the interim--and, vice versa, that if you do marry before
reaching the age of twenty-five you will receive nothing from the
date of the marriage.

'One object of my bequest is that you may have resources sufficient
to enable you to travel and study the Southern constellations. When
at the Cape, after hearing of your pursuits, I was much struck with
the importance of those constellations to an astronomer just pushing
into notice. There is more to be made of the Southern hemisphere
than ever has been made of it yet; the mine is not so thoroughly
worked as the Northern, and thither your studies should tend.

'The only other preventive step in my power is that of exhortation,
at which I am not an adept. Nevertheless, I say to you, Swithin St.
Cleeve, don't make a fool of yourself, as your father did. If your
studies are to be worth anything, believe me, they must be carried
on without the help of a woman. Avoid her, and every one of the
sex, if you mean to achieve any worthy thing. Eschew all of that
sort for many a year yet. Moreover, I say, the lady of your
acquaintance avoid in particular. I have heard nothing against her
moral character hitherto; I have no doubt it has been excellent.
She may have many good qualities, both of heart and of mind. But
she has, in addition to her original disqualification as a companion
for you (that is, that of sex), these two serious drawbacks: she is
much older than yourself--'

'MUCH older!' said Swithin resentfully.

'--and she is so impoverished that the title she derives from her
late husband is a positive objection. Beyond this, frankly, I don't
think well of her. I don't think well of any woman who dotes upon a
man younger than herself. To care to be the first fancy of a young
fellow like you shows no great common sense in her. If she were
worth her salt she would have too much pride to be intimate with a
youth in your unassured position, to say no worse. She is old
enough to know that a liaison with her may, and almost certainly
would, be your ruin; and, on the other hand, that a marriage would
be preposterous,--unless she is a complete goose, and in that case
there is even more reason for avoiding her than if she were in her
few senses.

'A woman of honourable feeling, nephew, would be careful to do
nothing to hinder you in your career, as this putting of herself in
your way most certainly will. Yet I hear that she professes a great
anxiety on this same future of yours as a physicist. The best way
in which she can show the reality of her anxiety is by leaving you
to yourself. Perhaps she persuades herself that she is doing you no
harm. Well, let her have the benefit of the possible belief; but
depend upon it that in truth she gives the lie to her conscience by
maintaining such a transparent fallacy. Women's brains are not
formed for assisting at any profound science: they lack the power
to see things except in the concrete. She'll blab your most secret
plans and theories to every one of her acquaintance--'

'She's got none!' said Swithin, beginning to get warm.

'--and make them appear ridiculous by announcing them before they
are matured. If you attempt to study with a woman, you'll be ruled
by her to entertain fancies instead of theories, air-castles instead
of intentions, qualms instead of opinions, sickly prepossessions
instead of reasoned conclusions. Your wide heaven of study, young
man, will soon reduce itself to the miserable narrow expanse of her
face, and your myriad of stars to her two trumpery eyes.

'A woman waking a young man's passions just at a moment when he is
endeavouring to shine intellectually, is doing little less than
committing a crime.

'Like a certain philosopher I would, upon my soul, have all young
men from eighteen to twenty-five kept under barrels; seeing how
often, in the lack of some such sequestering process, the woman sits
down before each as his destiny, and too frequently enervates his
purpose, till he abandons the most promising course ever conceived!

'But no more. I now leave your fate in your own hands. Your well-
wishing relative,
'JOCELYN ST. CLEEVE,
Doctor in
Medicine.'


As coming from a bachelor and hardened misogynist of seventy-two,
the opinions herein contained were nothing remarkable: but their
practical result in restricting the sudden endowment of Swithin's
researches by conditions which turned the favour into a harassment
was, at this unique moment, discomfiting and distracting in the
highest degree.

Sensational, however, as the letter was, the passionate intention of
the day was not hazarded for more than a few minutes thereby. The
truth was, the caution and bribe came too late, too unexpectedly, to
be of influence. They were the sort of thing which required
fermentation to render them effective. Had St. Cleeve received the
exhortation a month earlier; had he been able to run over in his
mind, at every wakeful hour of thirty consecutive nights, a private
catechism on the possibilities opened up by this annuity, there is
no telling what might have been the stress of such a web of
perplexity upon him, a young man whose love for celestial physics
was second to none. But to have held before him, at the last
moment, the picture of a future advantage that he had never once
thought of, or discounted for present staying power, it affected him
about as much as the view of horizons shown by sheet-lightning. He
saw an immense prospect; it went, and the world was as before.

He caught the train at Warborne, and moved rapidly towards Bath; not
precisely in the same key as when he had dressed in the hut at dawn,
but, as regarded the mechanical part of the journey, as
unhesitatingly as before.

And with the change of scene even his gloom left him; his bosom's
lord sat lightly in his throne. St. Cleeve was not sufficiently in
mind of poetical literature to remember that wise poets are
accustomed to read that lightness of bosom inversely. Swithin
thought it an omen of good fortune; and as thinking is causing in
not a few such cases, he was perhaps, in spite of poets, right.





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