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XXI

From that day forward their life resumed its old channel in general
outward aspect.

Perhaps the most remarkable feature in their exploit was its
comparative effectiveness as an expedient for the end designed,--
that of restoring calm assiduity to the study of astronomy. Swithin
took up his old position as the lonely philosopher at the column,
and Lady Constantine lapsed back to immured existence at the house,
with apparently not a friend in the parish. The enforced narrowness
of life which her limited resources necessitated was now an
additional safeguard against the discovery of her relations with St.
Cleeve. Her neighbours seldom troubled her; as much, it must be
owned, from a tacit understanding that she was not in a position to
return invitations as from any selfish coldness engendered by her
want of wealth.

At the first meeting of the secretly united pair after their short
honeymoon they were compelled to behave as strangers to each other.
It occurred in the only part of Welland which deserved the name of a
village street, and all the labourers were returning to their midday
meal, with those of their wives who assisted at outdoor work.
Before the eyes of this innocent though quite untrustworthy group,
Swithin and his Viviette could only shake hands in passing, though
she contrived to say to him in an undertone, 'My brother does not
return yet for some time. He has gone to Paris. I will be on the
lawn this evening, if you can come.' It was a fluttered smile that
she bestowed on him, and there was no doubt that every fibre of her
heart vibrated afresh at meeting, with such reserve, one who stood
in his close relation to her.

The shades of night fell early now, and Swithin was at the spot of
appointment about the time that he knew her dinner would be over.
It was just where they had met at the beginning of the year, but
many changes had resulted since then. The flower-beds that had used
to be so neatly edged were now jagged and leafy; black stars
appeared on the pale surface of the gravel walks, denoting tufts of
grass that grew unmolested there. Lady Constantine's external
affairs wore just that aspect which suggests that new blood may be
advantageously introduced into the line; and new blood had been
introduced, in good sooth,--with what social result remained to be
seen.

She silently entered on the scene from the same window which had
given her passage in months gone by. They met with a concerted
embrace, and St. Cleeve spoke his greeting in whispers.

'We are quite safe, dearest,' said she.

'But the servants?'

'My meagre staff consists of only two women and the boy; and they
are away in the other wing. I thought you would like to see the
inside of my house, after showing me the inside of yours. So we
will walk through it instead of staying out here.'

She let him in through the casement, and they strolled forward
softly, Swithin with some curiosity, never before having gone beyond
the library and adjoining room. The whole western side of the house
was at this time shut up, her life being confined to two or three
small rooms in the south-east corner. The great apartments through
which they now whisperingly walked wore already that funereal aspect
that comes from disuse and inattention. Triangular cobwebs already
formed little hammocks for the dust in corners of the wainscot, and
a close smell of wood and leather, seasoned with mouse-droppings,
pervaded the atmosphere. So seldom was the solitude of these
chambers intruded on by human feet that more than once a mouse stood
and looked the twain in the face from the arm of a sofa, or the top
of a cabinet, without any great fear.

Swithin had no residential ambition whatever, but he was interested
in the place. 'Will the house ever be thrown open to gaiety, as it
was in old times?' said he.

'Not unless you make a fortune,' she replied laughingly. 'It is
mine for my life, as you know; but the estate is so terribly saddled
with annuities to Sir Blount's distant relatives, one of whom will
succeed me here, that I have practically no more than my own little
private income to exist on.'

'And are you bound to occupy the house?'

'Not bound to. But I must not let it on lease.'

'And was there any stipulation in the event of your re-marriage?'

'It was not mentioned.'

'It is satisfactory to find that you lose nothing by marrying me, at
all events, dear Viviette.'

'I hope you lose nothing either--at least, of consequence.'

'What have I to lose?'

'I meant your liberty. Suppose you become a popular physicist
(popularity seems cooling towards art and coquetting with science
now-a-days), and a better chance offers, and one who would make you
a newer and brighter wife than I am comes in your way. Will you
never regret this? Will you never despise me?'

Swithin answered by a kiss, and they again went on; proceeding like
a couple of burglars, lest they should draw the attention of the
cook or Green.

In one of the upper rooms his eyes were attracted by an old chamber
organ, which had once been lent for use in the church. He mentioned
his recollection of the same, which led her to say, 'That reminds me
of something. There is to be a confirmation in our parish in the
spring, and you once told me that you had never been confirmed.
What shocking neglect! Why was it?'

'I hardly know. The confusion resulting from my father's death
caused it to be forgotten, I suppose.'

'Now, dear Swithin, you will do this to please me,--be confirmed on
the present occasion?'

'Since I have done without the virtue of it so long, might I not do
without it altogether?'

'No, no!' she said earnestly. 'I do wish it, indeed. I am made
unhappy when I think you don't care about such serious matters.
Without the Church to cling to, what have we?'

'Each other. But seriously, I should be inverting the established
order of spiritual things; people ought to be confirmed before they
are married.'

'That's really of minor consequence. Now, don't think slightingly
of what so many good men have laid down as necessary to be done.
And, dear Swithin, I somehow feel that a certain levity which has
perhaps shown itself in our treatment of the sacrament of marriage--
by making a clandestine adventure of what is, after all, a solemn
rite--would be well atoned for by a due seriousness in other points
of religious observance. This opportunity should therefore not be
passed over. I thought of it all last night; and you are a parson's
son, remember, and he would have insisted on it if he had been
alive. In short, Swithin, do be a good boy, and observe the
Church's ordinances.'

Lady Constantine, by virtue of her temperament, was necessarily
either lover or devote, and she vibrated so gracefully between these
two conditions that nobody who had known the circumstances could
have condemned her inconsistencies. To be led into difficulties by
those mastering emotions of hers, to aim at escape by turning round
and seizing the apparatus of religion--which could only rightly be
worked by the very emotions already bestowed elsewhere--it was,
after all, but Nature's well-meaning attempt to preserve the honour
of her daughter's conscience in the trying quandary to which the
conditions of sex had given rise. As Viviette could not be
confirmed herself, and as Communion Sunday was a long way off, she
urged Swithin thus.

'And the new bishop is such a good man,' she continued. 'I used to
have a slight acquaintance with him when he was a parish priest.'

'Very well, dearest. To please you I'll be confirmed. My
grandmother, too, will be delighted, no doubt.'

They continued their ramble: Lady Constantine first advancing into
rooms with the candle, to assure herself that all was empty, and
then calling him forward in a whisper. The stillness was broken
only by these whispers, or by the occasional crack of a floor-board
beneath their tread. At last they sat down, and, shading the candle
with a screen, she showed him the faded contents of this and that
drawer or cabinet, or the wardrobe of some member of the family who
had died young early in the century, when muslin reigned supreme,
when waists were close to arm-pits, and muffs as large as smugglers'
tubs. These researches among habilimental hulls and husks, whose
human kernels had long ago perished, went on for about half an hour;
when the companions were startled by a loud ringing at the front-
door bell.





Two on a Tower by Thomas Hardy
Category:
General Fiction
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