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XXXIV

Sunday morning came, and complicated her previous emotions by
bringing a new and unexpected shock to mingle with them. The
postman had delivered among other things an illustrated newspaper,
sent by a hand she did not recognize; and on opening the cover the
sheet that met her eyes filled her with a horror which she could not
express. The print was one which drew largely on its imagination
for its engravings, and it already contained an illustration of the
death of Sir Blount Constantine. In this work of art he was
represented as standing with his pistol to his mouth, his brains
being in process of flying up to the roof of his chamber, and his
native princess rushing terror-stricken away to a remote position in
the thicket of palms which neighboured the dwelling.

The crude realism of the picture, possibly harmless enough in its
effect upon others, overpowered and sickened her. By a curious
fascination she would look at it again and again, till every line of
the engraver's performance seemed really a transcript from what had
happened before his eyes. With such details fresh in her thoughts
she was going out of the door to make arrangements for confirming,
by repetition, her marriage with another. No interval was available
for serious reflection on the tragedy, or for allowing the softening
effects of time to operate in her mind. It was as though her first
husband had died that moment, and she was keeping an appointment
with another in the presence of his corpse.

So revived was the actuality of Sir Blount's recent life and death
by this incident, that the distress of her personal relations with
Swithin was the single force in the world which could have coerced
her into abandoning to him the interval she would fain have set
apart for getting over these new and painful impressions. Self-pity
for ill-usage afforded her good reasons for ceasing to love Sir
Blount; but he was yet too closely intertwined with her past life to
be destructible on the instant as a memory.

But there was no choice of occasions for her now, and she steadily
waited for the church bells to cease chiming. At last all was
silent; the surrounding cottagers had gathered themselves within the
walls of the adjacent building. Tabitha Lark's first voluntary then
droned from the tower window, and Lady Constantine left the garden
in which she had been loitering, and went towards Rings-Hill Speer.

The sense of her situation obscured the morning prospect. The
country was unusually silent under the intensifying sun, the
songless season of birds having just set in. Choosing her path amid
the efts that were basking upon the outer slopes of the plantation
she wound her way up the tree-shrouded camp to the wooden cabin in
the centre.

The door was ajar, but on entering she found the place empty. The
tower door was also partly open; and listening at the foot of the
stairs she heard Swithin above, shifting the telescope and wheeling
round the rumbling dome, apparently in preparation for the next
nocturnal reconnoitre. There was no doubt that he would descend in
a minute or two to look for her, and not wishing to interrupt him
till he was ready she re-entered the cabin, where she patiently
seated herself among the books and papers that lay scattered about.

She did as she had often done before when waiting there for him;
that is, she occupied her moments in turning over the papers and
examining the progress of his labours. The notes were mostly
astronomical, of course, and she had managed to keep sufficiently
abreast of him to catch the meaning of a good many of these. The
litter on the table, however, was somewhat more marked this morning
than usual, as if it had been hurriedly overhauled. Among the rest
of the sheets lay an open note, and, in the entire confidence that
existed between them, she glanced over and read it as a matter of
course.

It was a most business-like communication, and beyond the address
and date contained only the following words:--


'DEAR SIR,--We beg leave to draw your attention to a letter we
addressed to you on the 26th ult., to which we have not yet been
favoured with a reply. As the time for payment of the first moiety
of the six hundred pounds per annum settled on you by your late
uncle is now at hand, we should be obliged by your giving directions
as to where and in what manner the money is to be handed over to
you, and shall also be glad to receive any other definite
instructions from you with regard to the future.--We are, dear Sir,
yours faithfully,
HANNER AND RAWLES.'

'SWITHIN ST. CLEEVE, Esq.'


An income of six hundred a year for Swithin, whom she had hitherto
understood to be possessed of an annuity of eighty pounds at the
outside, with no prospect of increasing the sum but by hard work!
What could this communication mean? He whose custom and delight it
was to tell her all his heart, had breathed not a syllable of this
matter to her, though it met the very difficulty towards which their
discussions invariably tended--how to secure for him a competency
that should enable him to establish his pursuits on a wider basis,
and throw himself into more direct communion with the scientific
world. Quite bewildered by the lack of any explanation she rose
from her seat, and with the note in her hand ascended the winding
tower-steps.

Reaching the upper aperture she perceived him under the dome, moving
musingly about as if he had never been absent an hour, his light
hair frilling out from under the edge of his velvet skull-cap as it
was always wont to do. No question of marriage seemed to be
disturbing the mind of this juvenile husband of hers. The primum
mobile of his gravitation was apparently the equatorial telescope
which she had given him, and which he was carefully adjusting by
means of screws and clamps. Hearing her movements he turned his
head.

'O here you are, my dear Viviette! I was just beginning to expect
you,' he exclaimed, coming forward. 'I ought to have been looking
out for you, but I have found a little defect here in the
instrument, and I wanted to set it right before evening comes on.
As a rule it is not a good thing to tinker your glasses; but I have
found that the diffraction-rings are not perfect circles. I learnt
at Greenwich how to correct them--so kind they have been to me
there!--and so I have been loosening the screws and gently shifting
the glass, till I think that I have at last made the illumination
equal all round. I have so much to tell you about my visit; one
thing is, that the astronomical world is getting quite excited about
the coming Transit of Venus. There is to be a regular expedition
fitted out. How I should like to join it!'

He spoke enthusiastically, and with eyes sparkling at the mental
image of the said expedition; and as it was rather gloomy in the
dome he rolled it round on its axis, till the shuttered slit for the
telescope directly faced the morning sun, which thereupon flooded
the concave interior, touching the bright metal-work of the
equatorial, and lighting up her pale, troubled face.

'But Swithin!' she faltered; 'my letter to you--our marriage!'

'O yes, this marriage question,' he added. 'I had not forgotten it,
dear Viviette--or at least only for a few minutes.'

'Can you forget it, Swithin, for a moment? O how can you!' she said
reproachfully. 'It is such a distressing thing. It drives away all
my rest!'

'Forgotten is not the word I should have used,' he apologized.
'Temporarily dismissed it from my mind, is all I meant. The simple
fact is, that the vastness of the field of astronomy reduces every
terrestrial thing to atomic dimensions. Do not trouble, dearest.
The remedy is quite easy, as I stated in my letter. We can now be
married in a prosy public way. Yes, early or late--next week, next
month, six months hence--just as you choose. Say the word when, and
I will obey.'

The absence of all anxiety or consternation from his face contrasted
strangely with hers, which at last he saw, and, looking at the
writing she held, inquired--

'But what paper have you in your hand?'

'A letter which to me is actually inexplicable,' said she, her
curiosity returning to the letter, and overriding for the instant
her immediate concerns. 'What does this income of six hundred a
year mean? Why have you never told me about it, dear Swithin? or
does it not refer to you?'

He looked at the note, flushed slightly, and was absolutely unable
to begin his reply at once.

'I did not mean you to see that, Viviette,' he murmured.

'Why not?'

'I thought you had better not, as it does not concern me further
now. The solicitors are labouring under a mistake in supposing that
it does. I have to write at once and inform them that the annuity
is not mine to receive.'

'What a strange mystery in your life!' she said, forcing a perplexed
smile. 'Something to balance the tragedy in mine. I am absolutely
in the dark as to your past history, it seems. And yet I had
thought you told me everything.'

'I could not tell you that, Viviette, because it would have
endangered our relations--though not in the way you may suppose.
You would have reproved me. You, who are so generous and noble,
would have forbidden me to do what I did; and I was determined not
to be forbidden.'

'To do what?'

'To marry you.'

'Why should I have forbidden?'

'Must I tell--what I would not?' he said, placing his hands upon her
arms, and looking somewhat sadly at her. 'Well, perhaps as it has
come to this you ought to know all, since it can make no possible
difference to my intentions now. We are one for ever--legal
blunders notwithstanding; for happily they are quickly reparable--
and this question of a devise from my uncle Jocelyn only concerned
me when I was a single man.'

Thereupon, with obviously no consideration of the possibilities that
were reopened of the nullity of their marriage contract, he related
in detail, and not without misgiving for having concealed them so
long, the events that had occurred on the morning of their wedding-
day; how he had met the postman on his way to Warborne after
dressing in the cabin, and how he had received from him the letter
his dead uncle had confided to his family lawyers, informing him of
the annuity, and of the important request attached--that he should
remain unmarried until his five-and-twentieth year; how in
comparison with the possession of her dear self he had reckoned the
income as nought, abandoned all idea of it there and then, and had
come on to the wedding as if nothing had happened to interrupt for a
moment the working out of their plan; how he had scarcely thought
with any closeness of the circumstances of the case since, until
reminded of them by this note she had seen, and a previous one of a
like sort received from the same solicitors.

'O Swithin! Swithin!' she cried, bursting into tears as she realized
it all, and sinking on the observing-chair; 'I have ruined you! yes,
I have ruined you!'

The young man was dismayed by her unexpected grief, and endeavoured
to soothe her; but she seemed touched by a poignant remorse which
would not be comforted.

'And now,' she continued, as soon as she could speak, 'when you are
once more free, and in a position--actually in a position to claim
the annuity that would be the making of you, I am compelled to come
to you, and beseech you to undo yourself again, merely to save me!'

'Not to save you, Viviette, but to bless me. You do not ask me to
re-marry; it is not a question of alternatives at all; it is my
straight course. I do not dream of doing otherwise. I should be
wretched if you thought for one moment I could entertain the idea of
doing otherwise.'

But the more he said the worse he made the matter. It was a state
of affairs that would not bear discussion at all, and the
unsophisticated view he took of his course seemed to increase her
responsibility.

'Why did your uncle attach such a cruel condition to his bounty?'
she cried bitterly. 'O, he little thinks how hard he hits me from
the grave--me, who have never done him wrong; and you, too!
Swithin, are you sure that he makes that condition indispensable?
Perhaps he meant that you should not marry beneath you; perhaps he
did not mean to object in such a case as your marrying (forgive me
for saying it) a little above you.'

'There is no doubt that he did not contemplate a case which has led
to such happiness as this has done,' the youth murmured with
hesitation; for though he scarcely remembered a word of his uncle's
letter of advice, he had a dim apprehension that it was couched in
terms alluding specifically to Lady Constantine.

'Are you sure you cannot retain the money, and be my lawful husband
too?' she asked piteously. 'O, what a wrong I am doing you! I did
not dream that it could be as bad as this. I knew I was wasting
your time by letting you love me, and hampering your projects; but I
thought there were compensating advantages. This wrecking of your
future at my hands I did not contemplate. You are sure there is no
escape? Have you his letter with the conditions, or the will? Let
me see the letter in which he expresses his wishes.'

'I assure you it is all as I say,' he pensively returned. 'Even if
I were not legally bound by the conditions I should be morally.'

'But how does he put it? How does he justify himself in making such
a harsh restriction? Do let me see the letter, Swithin. I shall
think it a want of confidence if you do not. I may discover some
way out of the difficulty if you let me look at the papers.
Eccentric wills can be evaded in all sorts of ways.'

Still he hesitated. 'I would rather you did not see the papers,' he
said.

But she persisted as only a fond woman can. Her conviction was that
she who, as a woman many years his senior, should have shown her
love for him by guiding him straight into the paths he aimed at, had
blocked his attempted career for her own happiness. This made her
more intent than ever to find out a device by which, while she still
retained him, he might also retain the life-interest under his
uncle's will.

Her entreaties were at length too potent for his resistance.
Accompanying her downstairs to the cabin, he opened the desk from
which the other papers had been taken, and against his better
judgment handed her the ominous communication of Jocelyn St. Cleeve
which lay in the envelope just as it had been received three-
quarters of a year earlier.

'Don't read it now,' he said. 'Don't spoil our meeting by entering
into a subject which is virtually past and done with. Take it with
you, and look it over at your leisure--merely as an old curiosity,
remember, and not as a still operative document. I have almost
forgotten what the contents are, beyond the general advice and
stipulation that I was to remain a bachelor.'

'At any rate,' she rejoined, 'do not reply to the note I have seen
from the solicitors till I have read this also.'

He promised. 'But now about our public wedding,' he said. 'Like
certain royal personages, we shall have had the religious rite and
the civil contract performed on independent occasions. Will you fix
the day? When is it to be? and shall it take place at a registrar's
office, since there is no necessity for having the sacred part over
again?'

'I'll think,' replied she. 'I'll think it over.'

'And let me know as soon as you can how you decide to proceed.'

'I will write to-morrow, or come. I do not know what to say now. I
cannot forget how I am wronging you. This is almost more than I can
bear!'

To divert her mind he began talking about Greenwich Observatory, and
the great instruments therein, and how he had been received by the
astronomers, and the details of the expedition to observe the
Transit of Venus, together with many other subjects of the sort, to
which she had not power to lend her attention.

'I must reach home before the people are out of church,' she at
length said wearily. 'I wish nobody to know I have been out this
morning.' And forbidding Swithin to cross into the open in her
company she left him on the edge of the isolated plantation, which
had latterly known her tread so well.





Two on a Tower by Thomas Hardy
Category:
General Fiction
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