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XXXVII

A week had passed away. It had been a time of cloudy mental weather
to Swithin and Viviette, but the only noteworthy fact about it was
that what had been planned to happen therein had actually taken
place. Swithin had gone from Welland, and would shortly go from
England.

She became aware of it by a note that he posted to her on his way
through Warborne. There was much evidence of haste in the note, and
something of reserve. The latter she could not understand, but it
might have been obvious enough if she had considered.

On the morning of his departure he had sat on the edge of his bed,
the sunlight streaming through the early mist, the house-martens
scratching the back of the ceiling over his head as they scrambled
out from the roof for their day's gnat-chasing, the thrushes
cracking snails on the garden stones outside with the noisiness of
little smiths at work on little anvils. The sun, in sending its
rods of yellow fire into his room, sent, as he suddenly thought,
mental illumination with it. For the first time, as he sat there,
it had crossed his mind that Viviette might have reasons for this
separation which he knew not of. There might be family reasons--
mysterious blood necessities which are said to rule members of old
musty-mansioned families, and are unknown to other classes of
society--and they may have been just now brought before her by her
brother Louis on the condition that they were religiously concealed.

The idea that some family skeleton, like those he had read of in
memoirs, had been unearthed by Louis, and held before her terrified
understanding as a matter which rendered Swithin's departure, and
the neutralization of the marriage, no less indispensable to them
than it was an advantage to himself, seemed a very plausible one to
Swithin just now. Viviette might have taken Louis into her
confidence at last, for the sake of his brotherly advice. Swithin
knew that of her own heart she would never wish to get rid of him;
but coerced by Louis, might she not have grown to entertain views of
its expediency? Events made such a supposition on St. Cleeve's part
as natural as it was inaccurate, and, conjoined with his own
excitement at the thought of seeing a new heaven overhead,
influenced him to write but the briefest and most hurried final note
to her, in which he fully obeyed her sensitive request that he would
omit all reference to his plans. These at the last moment had been
modified to fall in with the winter expedition formerly mentioned,
to observe the Transit of Venus at a remote southern station.

The business being done, and himself fairly plunged into the
preliminaries of an important scientific pilgrimage, Swithin
acquired that lightness of heart which most young men feel in
forsaking old love for new adventure, no matter how charming may be
the girl they leave behind them. Moreover, in the present case, the
man was endowed with that schoolboy temperament which does not see,
or at least consider with much curiosity, the effect of a given
scheme upon others than himself. The bearing upon Lady Constantine
of what was an undoubted predicament for any woman, was forgotten in
his feeling that she had done a very handsome and noble thing for
him, and that he was therefore bound in honour to make the most of
it.

His going had resulted in anything but lightness of heart for her.
Her sad fancy could, indeed, indulge in dreams of her yellow-haired
laddie without that formerly besetting fear that those dreams would
prompt her to actions likely to distract and weight him. She was
wretched on her own account, relieved on his. She no longer stood
in the way of his advancement, and that was enough. For herself she
could live in retirement, visit the wood, the old camp, the column,
and, like OEnone, think of the life they had led there--

'Mournful OEnone, wandering forlorn
Of Paris, once her playmate on the hills,'

leaving it entirely to his goodness whether he would come and claim
her in the future, or desert her for ever.

She was diverted for a time from these sad performances by a letter
which reached her from Bishop Helmsdale. To see his handwriting
again on an envelope, after thinking so anxiously of making a
father-confessor of him, started her out of her equanimity. She
speedily regained it, however, when she read his note.


'THE PALACE, MELCHESTER,
July 30, 18--.
MY DEAR LADY CONSTANTINE,--I am shocked and grieved that, in the
strange dispensation of things here below, my offer of marriage
should have reached you almost simultaneously with the intelligence
that your widowhood had been of several months less duration than
you and I, and the world, had supposed. I can quite understand
that, viewed from any side, the news must have shaken and disturbed
you; and your unequivocal refusal to entertain any thought of a new
alliance at such a moment was, of course, intelligible, natural, and
praiseworthy. At present I will say no more beyond expressing a
hope that you will accept my assurances that I was quite ignorant of
the news at the hour of writing, and a sincere desire that in due
time, and as soon as you have recovered your equanimity, I may be
allowed to renew my proposal.--I am, my dear Lady Constantine, yours
ever sincerely,
C. MELCHESTER.'


She laid the letter aside, and thought no more about it, beyond a
momentary meditation on the errors into which people fall in
reasoning from actions to motives. Louis, who was now again with
her, became in due course acquainted with the contents of the
letter, and was satisfied with the promising position in which
matters seemingly stood all round.

Lady Constantine went her mournful ways as she had planned to do,
her chief resort being the familiar column, where she experienced
the unutterable melancholy of seeing two carpenters dismantle the
dome of its felt covering, detach its ribs, and clear away the
enclosure at the top till everything stood as it had stood before
Swithin had been known to the place. The equatorial had already
been packed in a box, to be in readiness if he should send for it
from abroad. The cabin, too, was in course of demolition, such
having been his directions, acquiesced in by her, before he started.
Yet she could not bear the idea that these structures, so germane to
the events of their romance, should be removed as if removed for
ever. Going to the men she bade them store up the materials intact,
that they might be re-erected if desired. She had the junctions of
the timbers marked with figures, the boards numbered, and the
different sets of screws tied up in independent papers for
identification. She did not hear the remarks of the workmen when
she had gone, to the effect that the young man would as soon think
of buying a halter for himself as come back and spy at the moon from
Rings-Hill Speer, after seeing the glories of other nations and the
gold and jewels that were found there, or she might have been more
unhappy than she was.

On returning from one of these walks to the column a curious
circumstance occurred. It was evening, and she was coming as usual
down through the sighing plantation, choosing her way between the
ramparts of the camp towards the outlet giving upon the field, when
suddenly in a dusky vista among the fir-trunks she saw, or thought
she saw, a golden-haired, toddling child. The child moved a step or
two, and vanished behind a tree. Lady Constantine, fearing it had
lost its way, went quickly to the spot, searched, and called aloud.
But no child could she perceive or hear anywhere around. She
returned to where she had stood when first beholding it, and looked
in the same direction, but nothing reappeared. The only object at
all resembling a little boy or girl was the upper tuft of a bunch of
fern, which had prematurely yellowed to about the colour of a fair
child's hair, and waved occasionally in the breeze. This, however,
did not sufficiently explain the phenomenon, and she returned to
make inquiries of the man whom she had left at work, removing the
last traces of Swithin's cabin. But he had gone with her departure
and the approach of night. Feeling an indescribable dread she
retraced her steps, and hastened homeward doubting, yet half
believing, what she had seemed to see, and wondering if her
imagination had played her some trick.

The tranquil mournfulness of her night of solitude terminated in a
most unexpected manner.

The morning after the above-mentioned incident Lady Constantine,
after meditating a while, arose with a strange personal conviction
that bore curiously on the aforesaid hallucination. She realized a
condition of things that she had never anticipated, and for a moment
the discovery of her state so overwhelmed her that she thought she
must die outright. In her terror she said she had sown the wind to
reap the whirlwind. Then the instinct of self-preservation flamed
up in her like a fire. Her altruism in subjecting her self-love to
benevolence, and letting Swithin go away from her, was demolished by
the new necessity, as if it had been a gossamer web.

There was no resisting or evading the spontaneous plan of action
which matured in her mind in five minutes. Where was Swithin? how
could he be got at instantly?--that was her ruling thought. She
searched about the room for his last short note, hoping, yet
doubting, that its contents were more explicit on his intended
movements than the few meagre syllables which alone she could call
to mind. She could not find the letter in her room, and came
downstairs to Louis as pale as a ghost.

He looked up at her, and with some concern said, 'What's the
matter?'

'I am searching everywhere for a letter--a note from Mr. St. Cleeve-
-just a few words telling me when the Occidental sails, that I think
he goes in.'

'Why do you want that unimportant document?'

'It is of the utmost importance that I should know whether he has
actually sailed or not!' said she in agonized tones. 'Where CAN
that letter be?'

Louis knew where that letter was, for having seen it on her desk he
had, without reading it, torn it up and thrown it into the waste-
paper basket, thinking the less that remained to remind her of the
young philosopher the better.

'I destroyed it,' he said.

'O Louis! why did you?' she cried. 'I am going to follow him; I
think it best to do so; and I want to know if he is gone--and now
the date is lost!'

'Going to run after St. Cleeve? Absurd!'

'Yes, I am!' she said with vehement firmness. 'I must see him; I
want to speak to him as soon as possible.'

'Good Lord, Viviette! Are you mad?'

'O what was the date of that ship! But it cannot be helped. I
start at once for Southampton. I have made up my mind to do it. He
was going to his uncle's solicitors in the North first; then he was
coming back to Southampton. He cannot have sailed yet.'

'I believe he has sailed,' muttered Louis sullenly.

She did not wait to argue with him, but returned upstairs, where she
rang to tell Green to be ready with the pony to drive her to
Warborne station in a quarter of an hour.





Two on a Tower by Thomas Hardy
Category:
General Fiction
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