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IV

It was a bright starlight night, a week or ten days later. There
had been several such nights since the occasion of Lady
Constantine's promise to Swithin St. Cleeve to come and study
astronomical phenomena on the Rings-Hill column; but she had not
gone there. This evening she sat at a window, the blind of which
had not been drawn down. Her elbow rested on a little table, and
her cheek on her hand. Her eyes were attracted by the brightness of
the planet Jupiter, as he rode in the ecliptic opposite, beaming
down upon her as if desirous of notice.

Beneath the planet could be still discerned the dark edges of the
park landscape against the sky. As one of its features, though
nearly screened by the trees which had been planted to shut out the
fallow tracts of the estate, rose the upper part of the column. It
was hardly visible now, even if visible at all; yet Lady Constantine
knew from daytime experience its exact bearing from the window at
which she leaned. The knowledge that there it still was, despite
its rapid envelopment by the shades, led her lonely mind to her late
meeting on its summit with the young astronomer, and to her promise
to honour him with a visit for learning some secrets about the
scintillating bodies overhead. The curious juxtaposition of
youthful ardour and old despair that she had found in the lad would
have made him interesting to a woman of perception, apart from his
fair hair and early-Christian face. But such is the heightening
touch of memory that his beauty was probably richer in her
imagination than in the real. It was a moot point to consider
whether the temptations that would be brought to bear upon him in
his course would exceed the staying power of his nature. Had he
been a wealthy youth he would have seemed one to tremble for. In
spite of his attractive ambitions and gentlemanly bearing, she
thought it would possibly be better for him if he never became known
outside his lonely tower,--forgetting that he had received such
intellectual enlargement as would probably make his continuance in
Welland seem, in his own eye, a slight upon his father's branch of
his family, whose social standing had been, only a few years
earlier, but little removed from her own.

Suddenly she flung a cloak about her and went out on the terrace.
She passed down the steps to the lower lawn, through the door to the
open park, and there stood still. The tower was now discernible.
As the words in which a thought is expressed develop a further
thought, so did the fact of her having got so far influence her to
go further. A person who had casually observed her gait would have
thought it irregular; and the lessenings and increasings of speed
with which she proceeded in the direction of the pillar could be
accounted for only by a motive much more disturbing than an
intention to look through a telescope. Thus she went on, till,
leaving the park, she crossed the turnpike-road, and entered the
large field, in the middle of which the fir-clad hill stood like
Mont St. Michel in its bay.

The stars were so bright as distinctly to show her the place, and
now she could see a faint light at the top of the column, which rose
like a shadowy finger pointing to the upper constellations. There
was no wind, in a human sense; but a steady stertorous breathing
from the fir-trees showed that, now as always, there was movement in
apparent stagnation. Nothing but an absolute vacuum could paralyze
their utterance.

The door of the tower was shut. It was something more than the
freakishness which is engendered by a sickening monotony that had
led Lady Constantine thus far, and hence she made no ado about
admitting herself. Three years ago, when her every action was a
thing of propriety, she had known of no possible purpose which could
have led her abroad in a manner such as this.

She ascended the tower noiselessly. On raising her head above the
hatchway she beheld Swithin bending over a scroll of paper which lay
on the little table beside him. The small lantern that illuminated
it showed also that he was warmly wrapped up in a coat and thick
cap, behind him standing the telescope on its frame.

What was he doing? She looked over his shoulder upon the paper, and
saw figures and signs. When he had jotted down something he went to
the telescope again.

'What are you doing to-night?' she said in a low voice.

Swithin started, and turned. The faint lamp-light was sufficient to
reveal her face to him.

'Tedious work, Lady Constantine,' he answered, without betraying
much surprise. 'Doing my best to watch phenomenal stars, as I may
call them.'

'You said you would show me the heavens if I could come on a
starlight night. I have come.'

Swithin, as a preliminary, swept round the telescope to Jupiter, and
exhibited to her the glory of that orb. Then he directed the
instrument to the less bright shape of Saturn.

'Here,' he said, warming up to the subject, 'we see a world which is
to my mind by far the most wonderful in the solar system. Think of
streams of satellites or meteors racing round and round the planet
like a fly-wheel, so close together as to seem solid matter!' He
entered further and further into the subject, his ideas gathering
momentum as he went on, like his pet heavenly bodies.

When he paused for breath she said, in tones very different from his
own, 'I ought now to tell you that, though I am interested in the
stars, they were not what I came to see you about. . . . I first
thought of disclosing the matter to Mr. Torkingham; but I altered my
mind, and decided on you.'

She spoke in so low a voice that he might not have heard her. At
all events, abstracted by his grand theme, he did not heed her. He
continued,--

'Well, we will get outside the solar system altogether,--leave the
whole group of sun, primary and secondary planets quite behind us in
our flight, as a bird might leave its bush and sweep into the whole
forest. Now what do you see, Lady Constantine?' He levelled the
achromatic at Sirius.

She said that she saw a bright star, though it only seemed a point
of light now as before.

'That's because it is so distant that no magnifying will bring its
size up to zero. Though called a fixed star, it is, like all fixed
stars, moving with inconceivable velocity; but no magnifying will
show that velocity as anything but rest.'

And thus they talked on about Sirius, and then about other stars

. . in the scrowl
Of all those beasts, and fish, and fowl,
With which, like Indian plantations,
The learned stock the constellations,

till he asked her how many stars she thought were visible to them at
that moment.

She looked around over the magnificent stretch of sky that their
high position unfolded. 'Oh, thousands, hundreds of thousands,' she
said absently.

'No. There are only about three thousand. Now, how many do you
think are brought within sight by the help of a powerful telescope?'

'I won't guess.'

'Twenty millions. So that, whatever the stars were made for, they
were not made to please our eyes. It is just the same in
everything; nothing is made for man.'

'Is it that notion which makes you so sad for your age?' she asked,
with almost maternal solicitude. 'I think astronomy is a bad study
for you. It makes you feel human insignificance too plainly.'

'Perhaps it does. However,' he added more cheerfully, 'though I
feel the study to be one almost tragic in its quality, I hope to be
the new Copernicus. What he was to the solar system I aim to be to
the systems beyond.'

Then, by means of the instrument at hand, they travelled together
from the earth to Uranus and the mysterious outskirts of the solar
system; from the solar system to a star in the Swan, the nearest
fixed star in the northern sky; from the star in the Swan to remoter
stars; thence to the remotest visible; till the ghastly chasm which
they had bridged by a fragile line of sight was realized by Lady
Constantine.

'We are now traversing distances beside which the immense line
stretching from the earth to the sun is but an invisible point,'
said the youth. 'When, just now, we had reached a planet whose
remoteness is a hundred times the remoteness of the sun from the
earth, we were only a two thousandth part of the journey to the spot
at which we have optically arrived now.'

'Oh, pray don't; it overpowers me!' she replied, not without
seriousness. 'It makes me feel that it is not worth while to live;
it quite annihilates me.'

'If it annihilates your ladyship to roam over these yawning spaces
just once, think how it must annihilate me to be, as it were, in
constant suspension amid them night after night.'

'Yes. . . . It was not really this subject that I came to see you
upon, Mr. St. Cleeve,' she began a second time. 'It was a personal
matter.'

'I am listening, Lady Constantine.'

'I will tell it you. Yet no,--not this moment. Let us finish this
grand subject first; it dwarfs mine.'

It would have been difficult to judge from her accents whether she
were afraid to broach her own matter, or really interested in his.
Or a certain youthful pride that he evidenced at being the
elucidator of such a large theme, and at having drawn her there to
hear and observe it, may have inclined her to indulge him for
kindness' sake.

Thereupon he took exception to her use of the word 'grand' as
descriptive of the actual universe:

'The imaginary picture of the sky as the concavity of a dome whose
base extends from horizon to horizon of our earth is grand, simply
grand, and I wish I had never got beyond looking at it in that way.
But the actual sky is a horror.'

'A new view of our old friends, the stars,' she said, smiling up at
them.

'But such an obviously true one!' said the young man. 'You would
hardly think, at first, that horrid monsters lie up there waiting to
be discovered by any moderately penetrating mind--monsters to which
those of the oceans bear no sort of comparison.'

'What monsters may they be?'

'Impersonal monsters, namely, Immensities. Until a person has
thought out the stars and their inter-spaces, he has hardly learnt
that there are things much more terrible than monsters of shape,
namely, monsters of magnitude without known shape. Such monsters
are the voids and waste places of the sky. Look, for instance, at
those pieces of darkness in the Milky Way,' he went on, pointing
with his finger to where the galaxy stretched across over their
heads with the luminousness of a frosted web. 'You see that dark
opening in it near the Swan? There is a still more remarkable one
south of the equator, called the Coal Sack, as a sort of nickname
that has a farcical force from its very inadequacy. In these our
sight plunges quite beyond any twinkler we have yet visited. Those
are deep wells for the human mind to let itself down into, leave
alone the human body! and think of the side caverns and secondary
abysses to right and left as you pass on!'

Lady Constantine was heedful and silent.

He tried to give her yet another idea of the size of the universe;
never was there a more ardent endeavour to bring down the
immeasurable to human comprehension! By figures of speech and apt
comparisons he took her mind into leading-strings, compelling her to
follow him into wildernesses of which she had never in her life even
realized the existence.

'There is a size at which dignity begins,' he exclaimed; 'further on
there is a size at which grandeur begins; further on there is a size
at which solemnity begins; further on, a size at which awfulness
begins; further on, a size at which ghastliness begins. That size
faintly approaches the size of the stellar universe. So am I not
right in saying that those minds who exert their imaginative powers
to bury themselves in the depths of that universe merely strain
their faculties to gain a new horror?'

Standing, as she stood, in the presence of the stellar universe,
under the very eyes of the constellations, Lady Constantine
apprehended something of the earnest youth's argument.

'And to add a new weirdness to what the sky possesses in its size
and formlessness, there is involved the quality of decay. For all
the wonder of these everlasting stars, eternal spheres, and what
not, they are not everlasting, they are not eternal; they burn out
like candles. You see that dying one in the body of the Greater
Bear? Two centuries ago it was as bright as the others. The senses
may become terrified by plunging among them as they are, but there
is a pitifulness even in their glory. Imagine them all
extinguished, and your mind feeling its way through a heaven of
total darkness, occasionally striking against the black, invisible
cinders of those stars. . . . If you are cheerful, and wish to
remain so, leave the study of astronomy alone. Of all the sciences,
it alone deserves the character of the terrible.'

'I am not altogether cheerful.'

'Then if, on the other hand, you are restless and anxious about the
future, study astronomy at once. Your troubles will be reduced
amazingly. But your study will reduce them in a singular way, by
reducing the importance of everything. So that the science is still
terrible, even as a panacea. It is quite impossible to think at all
adequately of the sky--of what the sky substantially is, without
feeling it as a juxtaposed nightmare. It is better--far better--for
men to forget the universe than to bear it clearly in mind! . . .
But you say the universe was not really what you came to see me
about. What was it, may I ask, Lady Constantine?'

She mused, and sighed, and turned to him with something pathetic in
her.

'The immensity of the subject you have engaged me on has completely
crushed my subject out of me! Yours is celestial; mine lamentably
human! And the less must give way to the greater.'

'But is it, in a human sense, and apart from macrocosmic magnitudes,
important?' he inquired, at last attracted by her manner; for he
began to perceive, in spite of his prepossession, that she had
really something on her mind.

'It is as important as personal troubles usually are.'

Notwithstanding her preconceived notion of coming to Swithin as
employer to dependant, as chatelaine to page, she was falling into
confidential intercourse with him. His vast and romantic endeavours
lent him a personal force and charm which she could not but
apprehend. In the presence of the immensities that his young mind
had, as it were, brought down from above to hers, they became
unconsciously equal. There was, moreover, an inborn liking in Lady
Constantine to dwell less on her permanent position as a county lady
than on her passing emotions as a woman.

'I will postpone the matter I came to charge you with,' she resumed,
smiling. 'I must reconsider it. Now I will return.'

'Allow me to show you out through the trees and across the fields?'

She said neither a distinct yes nor no; and, descending the tower,
they threaded the firs and crossed the ploughed field. By an odd
coincidence he remarked, when they drew near the Great House--

'You may possibly be interested in knowing, Lady Constantine, that
that medium-sized star you see over there, low down in the south, is
precisely over Sir Blount Constantine's head in the middle of
Africa.'

'How very strange that you should have said so!' she answered. 'You
have broached for me the very subject I had come to speak of.'

'On a domestic matter?' he said, with surprise.

'Yes. What a small matter it seems now, after our astronomical
stupendousness! and yet on my way to you it so far transcended the
ordinary matters of my life as the subject you have led me up to
transcends this. But,' with a little laugh, 'I will endeavour to
sink down to such ephemeral trivialities as human tragedy, and
explain, since I have come. The point is, I want a helper: no
woman ever wanted one more. For days I have wanted a trusty friend
who could go on a secret errand for me. It is necessary that my
messenger should be educated, should be intelligent, should be
silent as the grave. Do you give me your solemn promise as to the
last point, if I confide in you?'

'Most emphatically, Lady Constantine.'

'Your right hand upon the compact.'

He gave his hand, and raised hers to his lips. In addition to his
respect for her as the lady of the manor, there was the admiration
of twenty years for twenty-eight or nine in such relations.

'I trust you,' she said. 'Now, beyond the above conditions, it was
specially necessary that my agent should have known Sir Blount
Constantine well by sight when he was at home. For the errand is
concerning my husband; I am much disturbed at what I have heard
about him.'

'I am indeed sorry to know it.'

'There are only two people in the parish who fulfil all the
conditions,--Mr. Torkingham, and yourself. I sent for Mr.
Torkingham, and he came. I could not tell him. I felt at the last
moment that he wouldn't do. I have come to you because I think you
will do. This is it: my husband has led me and all the world to
believe that he is in Africa, hunting lions. I have had a
mysterious letter informing me that he has been seen in London, in
very peculiar circumstances. The truth of this I want ascertained.
Will you go on the journey?'

'Personally, I would go to the end of the world for you, Lady
Constantine; but--'

'No buts!'

'How can I leave?'

'Why not?'

'I am preparing a work on variable stars. There is one of these
which I have exceptionally observed for several months, and on this
my great theory is mainly based. It has been hitherto called
irregular; but I have detected a periodicity in its so-called
irregularities which, if proved, would add some very valuable facts
to those known on this subject, one of the most interesting,
perplexing, and suggestive in the whole field of astronomy. Now, to
clinch my theory, there should be a sudden variation this week,--or
at latest next week,--and I have to watch every night not to let it
pass. You see my reason for declining, Lady Constantine.'

'Young men are always so selfish!' she said.

'It might ruin the whole of my year's labour if I leave now!'
returned the youth, greatly hurt. 'Could you not wait a fortnight
longer?'

'No,--no. Don't think that I have asked you, pray. I have no wish
to inconvenience you.'

'Lady Constantine, don't be angry with me! Will you do this,--watch
the star for me while I am gone? If you are prepared to do it
effectually, I will go.'

'Will it be much trouble?'

'It will be some trouble. You would have to come here every clear
evening about nine. If the sky were not clear, then you would have
to come at four in the morning, should the clouds have dispersed.'

'Could not the telescope be brought to my house?'

Swithin shook his head.

'Perhaps you did not observe its real size,--that it was fixed to a
frame-work? I could not afford to buy an equatorial, and I have
been obliged to rig up an apparatus of my own devising, so as to
make it in some measure answer the purpose of an equatorial. It
COULD be moved, but I would rather not touch it.'

'Well, I'll go to the telescope,' she went on, with an emphasis that
was not wholly playful. 'You are the most ungallant youth I ever
met with; but I suppose I must set that down to science. Yes, I'll
go to the tower at nine every night.'

'And alone? I should prefer to keep my pursuits there unknown.'

'And alone,' she answered, quite overborne by his inflexibility.

'You will not miss the morning observation, if it should be
necessary?'

'I have given my word.'

'And I give mine. I suppose I ought not to have been so exacting!'
He spoke with that sudden emotional sense of his own insignificance
which made these alternations of mood possible. 'I will go
anywhere--do anything for you--this moment--to-morrow or at any
time. But you must return with me to the tower, and let me show you
the observing process.'

They retraced their steps, the tender hoar-frost taking the imprint
of their feet, while two stars in the Twins looked down upon their
two persons through the trees, as if those two persons could bear
some sort of comparison with them. On the tower the instructions
were given. When all was over, and he was again conducting her to
the Great House she said--

'When can you start?'

'Now,' said Swithin.

'So much the better. You shall go up by the night mail.'





Two on a Tower by Thomas Hardy
Category:
General Fiction
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