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XXII

Lady Constantine flung down the old-fashioned lacework, whose
beauties she had been pointing out to Swithin, and exclaimed, 'Who
can it be? Not Louis, surely?'

They listened. An arrival was such a phenomenon at this
unfrequented mansion, and particularly a late arrival, that no
servant was on the alert to respond to the call; and the visitor
rang again, more loudly than before. Sounds of the tardy opening
and shutting of a passage-door from the kitchen quarter then reached
their ears, and Viviette went into the corridor to hearken more
attentively. In a few minutes she returned to the wardrobe-room in
which she had left Swithin.

'Yes; it is my brother!' she said with difficult composure. 'I just
caught his voice. He has no doubt come back from Paris to stay.
This is a rather vexatious, indolent way he has, never to write to
prepare me!'

'I can easily go away,' said Swithin.

By this time, however, her brother had been shown into the house,
and the footsteps of the page were audible, coming in search of Lady
Constantine.

'If you will wait there a moment,' she said, directing St. Cleeve
into a bedchamber which adjoined; 'you will be quite safe from
interruption, and I will quickly come back.' Taking the light she
left him.

Swithin waited in darkness. Not more than ten minutes had passed
when a whisper in her voice came through the keyhole. He opened the
door.

'Yes; he is come to stay!' she said. 'He is at supper now.'

'Very well; don't be flurried, dearest. Shall I stay too, as we
planned?'

'O, Swithin, I fear not!' she replied anxiously. 'You see how it
is. To-night we have broken the arrangement that you should never
come here; and this is the result. Will it offend you if--I ask you
to leave?'

'Not in the least. Upon the whole, I prefer the comfort of my
little cabin and homestead to the gauntness and alarms of this
place.'

'There, now, I fear you are offended!' she said, a tear collecting
in her eye. 'I wish I was going back with you to the cabin! How
happy we were, those three days of our stay there! But it is
better, perhaps, just now, that you should leave me. Yes, these
rooms are oppressive. They require a large household to make them
cheerful. . . . Yet, Swithin,' she added, after reflection, 'I will
not request you to go. Do as you think best. I will light a night-
light, and leave you here to consider. For myself, I must go
downstairs to my brother at once, or he'll wonder what I am doing.'

She kindled the little light, and again retreated, closing the door
upon him.

Swithin stood and waited some time; till he considered that upon the
whole it would be preferable to leave. With this intention he
emerged and went softly along the dark passage towards the extreme
end, where there was a little crooked staircase that would conduct
him down to a disused side door. Descending this stair he duly
arrived at the other side of the house, facing the quarter whence
the wind blew, and here he was surprised to catch the noise of rain
beating against the windows. It was a state of weather which fully
accounted for the visitor's impatient ringing.

St. Cleeve was in a minor kind of dilemma. The rain reminded him
that his hat and great-coat had been left downstairs, in the front
part of the house; and though he might have gone home without either
in ordinary weather it was not a pleasant feat in the pelting winter
rain. Retracing his steps to Viviette's room he took the light, and
opened a closet-door that he had seen ajar on his way down. Within
the closet hung various articles of apparel, upholstery lumber of
all kinds filling the back part. Swithin thought he might find here
a cloak of hers to throw round him, but finally took down from a peg
a more suitable garment, the only one of the sort that was there.
It was an old moth-eaten great-coat, heavily trimmed with fur; and
in removing it a companion cap of sealskin was disclosed.

'Whose can they be?' he thought, and a gloomy answer suggested
itself. 'Pooh,' he then said (summoning the scientific side of his
nature), 'matter is matter, and mental association only a delusion.'
Putting on the garments he returned the light to Lady Constantine's
bedroom, and again prepared to depart as before.

Scarcely, however, had he regained the corridor a second time, when
he heard a light footstep--seemingly Viviette's--again on the front
landing. Wondering what she wanted with him further he waited,
taking the precaution to step into the closet till sure it was she.

The figure came onward, bent to the keyhole of the bedroom door, and
whispered (supposing him still inside), 'Swithin, on second thoughts
I think you may stay with safety.'

Having no further doubt of her personality he came out with
thoughtless abruptness from the closet behind her, and looking round
suddenly she beheld his shadowy fur-clad outline. At once she
raised her hands in horror, as if to protect herself from him; she
uttered a shriek, and turned shudderingly to the wall, covering her
face.

Swithin would have picked her up in a moment, but by this time he
could hear footsteps rushing upstairs, in response to her cry. In
consternation, and with a view of not compromising her, he effected
his retreat as fast as possible, reaching the bend of the corridor
just as her brother Louis appeared with a light at the other
extremity.

'What's the matter, for heaven's sake, Viviette?' said Louis.

'My husband!' she involuntarily exclaimed.

'What nonsense!'

'O yes, it is nonsense,' she added, with an effort. 'It was
nothing.'

'But what was the cause of your cry?'

She had by this time recovered her reason and judgment. 'O, it was
a trick of the imagination,' she said, with a faint laugh. 'I live
so much alone that I get superstitious--and--I thought for the
moment I saw an apparition.'

'Of your late husband?'

'Yes. But it was nothing; it was the outline of the--tall clock and
the chair behind. Would you mind going down, and leaving me to go
into my room for a moment?'

She entered the bedroom, and her brother went downstairs. Swithin
thought it best to leave well alone, and going noiselessly out of
the house plodded through the rain homeward. It was plain that
agitations of one sort and another had so weakened Viviette's nerves
as to lay her open to every impression. That the clothes he had
borrowed were some cast-off garments of the late Sir Blount had
occurred to St. Cleeve in taking them; but in the moment of
returning to her side he had forgotten this, and the shape they gave
to his figure had obviously been a reminder of too sudden a sort for
her. Musing thus he walked along as if he were still, as before,
the lonely student, dissociated from all mankind, and with no shadow
of right or interest in Welland House or its mistress.

The great-coat and cap were unpleasant companions; but Swithin
having been reared, or having reared himself, in the scientific
school of thought, would not give way to his sense of their
weirdness. To do so would have been treason to his own beliefs and
aims.

When nearly home, at a point where his track converged on another
path, there approached him from the latter a group of indistinct
forms. The tones of their speech revealed them to be Hezzy Biles,
Nat Chapman, Fry, and other labourers. Swithin was about to say a
word to them, till recollecting his disguise he deemed it advisable
to hold his tongue, lest his attire should tell a too dangerous tale
as to where he had come from. By degrees they drew closer, their
walk being in the same direction.

'Good-night, strainger,' said Nat.

The stranger did not reply.

All of them paced on abreast of him, and he could perceive in the
gloom that their faces were turned inquiringly upon his form. Then
a whisper passed from one to another of them; then Chapman, who was
the boldest, dropped immediately behind his heels, and followed
there for some distance, taking close observations of his outline,
after which the men grouped again and whispered. Thinking it best
to let them pass on Swithin slackened his pace, and they went ahead
of him, apparently without much reluctance.

There was no doubt that they had been impressed by the clothes he
wore; and having no wish to provoke similar comments from his
grandmother and Hannah, Swithin took the precaution, on arriving at
Welland Bottom, to enter the homestead by the outhouse. Here he
deposited the cap and coat in secure hiding, afterwards going round
to the front and opening the door in the usual way.

In the entry he met Hannah, who said--

'Only to hear what have been seed to-night, Mr. Swithin! The work-
folk have dropped in to tell us!'

In the kitchen were the men who had outstripped him on the road.
Their countenances, instead of wearing the usual knotty
irregularities, had a smoothed-out expression of blank concern.
Swithin's entrance was unobtrusive and quiet, as if he had merely
come down from his study upstairs, and they only noticed him by
enlarging their gaze, so as to include him in the audience.

'We was in a deep talk at the moment,' continued Blore, 'and Natty
had just brought up that story about old Jeremiah Paddock's crossing
the park one night at one o'clock in the morning, and seeing Sir
Blount a-shutting my lady out-o'-doors; and we was saying that it
seemed a true return that he should perish in a foreign land; when
we happened to look up, and there was Sir Blount a-walking along.'

'Did it overtake you, or did you overtake it?' whispered Hannah
sepulchrally.

'I don't say 'twas IT,' returned Sammy. 'God forbid that I should
drag in a resurrection word about what perhaps was still solid
manhood, and has to die! But he, or it, closed in upon us, as
'twere.'

'Yes, closed in upon us!' said Haymoss.

'And I said "Good-night, strainger,"' added Chapman.

'Yes, "Good-night, strainger,"--that wez yer words, Natty. I
support ye in it.'

'And then he closed in upon us still more.'

'We closed in upon he, rather,' said Chapman.

'Well, well; 'tis the same thing in such matters! And the form was
Sir Blount's. My nostrils told me, for--there, 'a smelled. Yes, I
could smell'n, being to leeward.'

'Lord, lord, what unwholesome scandal's this about the ghost of a
respectable gentleman?' said Mrs. Martin, who had entered from the
sitting-room.

'Now, wait, ma'am. I don't say 'twere a low smell, mind ye. 'Twere
a high smell, a sort of gamey flaviour, calling to mind venison and
hare, just as you'd expect of a great squire,--not like a poor man's
'natomy, at all; and that was what strengthened my faith that 'twas
Sir Blount.'

('The skins that old coat was made of,' ruminated Swithin.)

'Well, well; I've not held out against the figure o' starvation
these five-and-twenty year, on nine shillings a week, to be afeard
of a walking vapour, sweet or savoury,' said Hezzy. 'So here's
home-along.'

'Bide a bit longer, and I'm going too,' continued Fry. 'Well, when
I found 'twas Sir Blount my spet dried up within my mouth; for
neither hedge nor bush were there for refuge against any foul spring
'a might have made at us.'

''Twas very curious; but we had likewise a-mentioned his name just
afore, in talking of the confirmation that's shortly coming on,'
said Hezzy.

'Is there soon to be a confirmation?'

'Yes. In this parish--the first time in Welland church for twenty
years. As I say, I had told 'em that he was confirmed the same year
that I went up to have it done, as I have very good cause to mind.
When we went to be examined, the pa'son said to me, "Rehearse the
articles of thy belief." Mr. Blount (as he was then) was nighest
me, and he whispered, "Women and wine." "Women and wine," says I to
the pa'son: and for that I was sent back till next confirmation,
Sir Blount never owning that he was the rascal.'

'Confirmation was a sight different at that time,' mused Biles.
'The Bishops didn't lay it on so strong then as they do now. Now-a-
days, yer Bishop gies both hands to every Jack-rag and Tom-straw
that drops the knee afore him; but 'twas six chaps to one blessing
when we was boys. The Bishop o' that time would stretch out his
palms and run his fingers over our row of crowns as off-hand as a
bank gentleman telling money. The great lords of the Church in them
days wasn't particular to a soul or two more or less; and, for my
part, I think living was easier for 't.'

'The new Bishop, I hear, is a bachelor-man; or a widow gentleman is
it?' asked Mrs. Martin.

'Bachelor, I believe, ma'am. Mr. San Cleeve, making so bold, you've
never faced him yet, I think?'

Mrs. Martin shook her head.

'No; it was a piece of neglect. I hardly know how it happened,' she
said.

'I am going to, this time,' said Swithin, and turned the chat to
other matters.





Two on a Tower by Thomas Hardy
Category:
General Fiction
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