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XXVI

Half an hour before this time Swithin St. Cleeve had been sitting in
his cabin at the base of the column, working out some figures from
observations taken on preceding nights, with a view to a theory that
he had in his head on the motions of certain so-called fixed stars.

The evening being a little chilly a small fire was burning in the
stove, and this and the shaded lamp before him lent a remarkably
cosy air to the chamber. He was awakened from his reveries by a
scratching at the window-pane like that of the point of an ivy leaf,
which he knew to be really caused by the tip of his sweetheart-
wife's forefinger. He rose and opened the door to admit her, not
without astonishment as to how she had been able to get away from
her friends.

'Dearest Viv, why, what's the matter?' he said, perceiving that her
face, as the lamplight fell on it, was sad, and even stormy.

'I thought I would run across to see you. I have heard something
so--so--to your discredit, and I know it can't be true! I know you
are constancy itself; but your constancy produces strange effects in
people's eyes!'

'Good heavens! Nobody has found us out--'

'No, no--it is not that. You know, Swithin, that I am always
sincere, and willing to own if I am to blame in anything. Now will
you prove to me that you are the same by owning some fault to me?'

'Yes, dear, indeed; directly I can think of one worth owning.'

'I wonder one does not rush upon your tongue in a moment!'

'I confess that I am sufficiently a Pharisee not to experience that
spontaneity.'

'Swithin, don't speak so affectedly, when you know so well what I
mean! Is it nothing to you that, after all our vows for life, you
have thought it right to--flirt with a village girl?'

'O Viviette!' interrupted Swithin, taking her hand, which was hot
and trembling. 'You who are full of noble and generous feelings,
and regard me with devoted tenderness that has never been surpassed
by woman,--how can you be so greatly at fault? _I_ flirt, Viviette?
By thinking that you injure yourself in my eyes. Why, I am so far
from doing so that I continually pull myself up for watching you too
jealously, as to-day, when I have been dreading the effect upon you
of other company in my absence, and thinking that you rather shut
the gates against me when you have big-wigs to entertain.'

'Do you, Swithin?' she cried. It was evident that the honest tone
of his words was having a great effect in clearing away the clouds.
She added with an uncertain smile, 'But how can I believe that,
after what was seen to-day? My brother, not knowing in the least
that I had an iota of interest in you, told me that he witnessed the
signs of an attachment between you and Tabitha Lark in church, this
morning.'

'Ah!' cried Swithin, with a burst of laughter. 'Now I know what you
mean, and what has caused this misunderstanding! How good of you,
Viviette, to come at once and have it out with me, instead of
brooding over it with dark imaginings, and thinking bitter things of
me, as many women would have done!' He succinctly told the whole
story of his little adventure with Tabitha that morning; and the sky
was clear on both sides. 'When shall I be able to claim you,' he
added, 'and put an end to all such painful accidents as these?'

She partially sighed. Her perception of what the outside world was
made of, latterly somewhat obscured by solitude and her lover's
company, had been revived to-day by her entertainment of the Bishop,
clergymen, and, more particularly, clergymen's wives; and it did not
diminish her sense of the difficulties in Swithin's path to see anew
how little was thought of the greatest gifts, mental and spiritual,
if they were not backed up by substantial temporalities. However,
the pair made the best of their future that circumstances permitted,
and the interview was at length drawing to a close when there came,
without the slightest forewarning, a smart rat-tat-tat upon the
little door.

'O I am lost!' said Viviette, seizing his arm. 'Why was I so
incautious?'

'It is nobody of consequence,' whispered Swithin assuringly.
'Somebody from my grandmother, probably, to know when I am coming
home.'

They were unperceived so far, for the only window which gave light
to the hut was screened by a curtain. At that moment they heard the
sound of their visitors' voices, and, with a consternation as great
as her own, Swithin discerned the tones of Mr. Torkingham and the
Bishop of Melchester.

'Where shall I get? What shall I do?' said the poor lady, clasping
her hands.

Swithin looked around the cabin, and a very little look was required
to take in all its resources. At one end, as previously explained,
were a table, stove, chair, cupboard, and so on; while the other was
completely occupied by a diminutive Arabian bedstead, hung with
curtains of pink-and-white chintz. On the inside of the bed there
was a narrow channel, about a foot wide, between it and the wall of
the hut. Into this cramped retreat Viviette slid herself, and stood
trembling behind the curtains.

By this time the knock had been repeated more loudly, the light
through the window-blind unhappily revealing the presence of some
inmate. Swithin threw open the door, and Mr. Torkingham introduced
his visitors.

The Bishop shook hands with the young man, told him he had known his
father, and at Swithin's invitation, weak as it was, entered the
cabin, the vicar and Louis Glanville remaining on the threshold, not
to inconveniently crowd the limited space within.

Bishop Helmsdale looked benignantly around the apartment, and said,
'Quite a settlement in the backwoods--quite: far enough from the
world to afford the votary of science the seclusion he needs, and
not so far as to limit his resources. A hermit might apparently
live here in as much solitude as in a primeval forest.'

'His lordship has been good enough to express an interest in your
studies,' said Mr. Torkingham to St. Cleeve. 'And we have come to
ask you to let us see the observatory.'

'With great pleasure,' stammered Swithin.

'Where is the observatory?' inquired the Bishop, peering round
again.

'The staircase is just outside this door,' Swithin answered. 'I am
at your lordship's service, and will show you up at once.'

'And this is your little bed, for use when you work late,' said the
Bishop.

'Yes; I am afraid it is rather untidy,' Swithin apologized.

'And here are your books,' the Bishop continued, turning to the
table and the shaded lamp. 'You take an observation at the top, I
presume, and come down here to record your observations.'

The young man explained his precise processes as well as his state
of mind would let him, and while he was doing so Mr. Torkingham and
Louis waited patiently without, looking sometimes into the night,
and sometimes through the door at the interlocutors, and listening
to their scientific converse. When all had been exhibited here
below, Swithin lit his lantern, and, inviting his visitors to
follow, led the way up the column, experiencing no small sense of
relief as soon as he heard the footsteps of all three tramping on
the stairs behind him. He knew very well that, once they were
inside the spiral, Viviette was out of danger, her knowledge of the
locality enabling her to find her way with perfect safety through
the plantation, and into the park home.

At the top he uncovered his equatorial, and, for the first time at
ease, explained to them its beauties, and revealed by its help the
glories of those stars that were eligible for inspection. The
Bishop spoke as intelligently as could be expected on a topic not
peculiarly his own; but, somehow, he seemed rather more abstracted
in manner now than when he had arrived. Swithin thought that
perhaps the long clamber up the stairs, coming after a hard day's
work, had taken his spontaneity out of him, and Mr. Torkingham was
afraid that his lordship was getting bored. But this did not appear
to be the case; for though he said little he stayed on some time
longer, examining the construction of the dome after relinquishing
the telescope; while occasionally Swithin caught the eyes of the
Bishop fixed hard on him.

'Perhaps he sees some likeness of my father in me,' the young man
thought; and the party making ready to leave at this time he
conducted them to the bottom of the tower.

Swithin was not prepared for what followed their descent. All were
standing at the foot of the staircase. The astronomer, lantern in
hand, offered to show them the way out of the plantation, to which
Mr. Torkingham replied that he knew the way very well, and would not
trouble his young friend. He strode forward with the words, and
Louis followed him, after waiting a moment and finding that the
Bishop would not take the precedence. The latter and Swithin were
thus left together for one moment, whereupon the Bishop turned.

'Mr. St. Cleeve,' he said in a strange voice, 'I should like to
speak to you privately, before I leave, to-morrow morning. Can you
meet me--let me see--in the churchyard, at half-past ten o'clock?'

'O yes, my lord, certainly,' said Swithin. And before he had
recovered from his surprise the Bishop had joined the others in the
shades of the plantation.

Swithin immediately opened the door of the hut, and scanned the nook
behind the bed. As he had expected his bird had flown.





Two on a Tower by Thomas Hardy
Category:
General Fiction
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