eBooks Cube
 
V

On the third morning after the young man's departure Lady
Constantine opened the post-bag anxiously. Though she had risen
before four o'clock, and crossed to the tower through the gray half-
light when every blade and twig were furred with rime, she felt no
languor. Expectation could banish at cock-crow the eye-heaviness
which apathy had been unable to disperse all the day long.

There was, as she had hoped, a letter from Swithin St. Cleeve.


'DEAR LADY CONSTANTINE,--I have quite succeeded in my mission, and
shall return to-morrow at 10 p.m. I hope you have not failed in the
observations. Watching the star through an opera-glass Sunday
night, I fancied some change had taken place, but I could not make
myself sure. Your memoranda for that night I await with impatience.
Please don't neglect to write down AT THE MOMENT, all remarkable
appearances both as to colour and intensity; and be very exact as to
time, which correct in the way I showed you.--I am, dear Lady
Constantine, yours most faithfully,
SWITHIN ST.
CLEEVE.'


Not another word in the letter about his errand; his mind ran on
nothing but this astronomical subject. He had succeeded in his
mission, and yet he did not even say yes or no to the great
question,--whether or not her husband was masquerading in London at
the address she had given.

'Was ever anything so provoking!' she cried.

However, the time was not long to wait. His way homeward would lie
within a stone's-throw of the manor-house, and though for certain
reasons she had forbidden him to call at the late hour of his
arrival, she could easily intercept him in the avenue. At twenty
minutes past ten she went out into the drive, and stood in the dark.
Seven minutes later she heard his footstep, and saw his outline in
the slit of light between the avenue-trees. He had a valise in one
hand, a great-coat on his arm, and under his arm a parcel which
seemed to be very precious, from the manner in which he held it.

'Lady Constantine?' he asked softly.

'Yes,' she said, in her excitement holding out both her hands,
though he had plainly not expected her to offer one.

'Did you watch the star?'

'I'll tell you everything in detail; but, pray, your errand first!'

'Yes, it's all right. Did you watch every night, not missing one?'

'I forgot to go--twice,' she murmured contritely.

'Oh, Lady Constantine!' he cried in dismay. 'How could you serve me
so! what shall I do?'

'Please forgive me! Indeed, I could not help it. I had watched and
watched, and nothing happened; and somehow my vigilance relaxed when
I found nothing was likely to take place in the star.'

'But the very circumstance of it not having happened, made it all
the more likely every day.'

'Have you--seen--' she began imploringly.

Swithin sighed, lowered his thoughts to sublunary things, and told
briefly the story of his journey. Sir Blount Constantine was not in
London at the address which had been anonymously sent her. It was a
mistake of identity. The person who had been seen there Swithin had
sought out. He resembled Sir Blount strongly; but he was a
stranger.

'How can I reward you!' she exclaimed, when he had done.

'In no way but by giving me your good wishes in what I am going to
tell you on my own account.' He spoke in tones of mysterious
exultation. 'This parcel is going to make my fame!'

'What is it?'

'A huge object-glass for the great telescope I am so busy about!
Such a magnificent aid to science has never entered this county
before, you may depend.'

He produced from under his arm the carefully cuddled-up package,
which was in shape a round flat disk, like a dinner-plate, tied in
paper.

Proceeding to explain his plans to her more fully, he walked with
her towards the door by which she had emerged. It was a little side
wicket through a wall dividing the open park from the garden
terraces. Here for a moment he placed his valise and parcel on the
coping of the stone balustrade, till he had bidden her farewell.
Then he turned, and in laying hold of his bag by the dim light
pushed the parcel over the parapet. It fell smash upon the paved
walk ten or a dozen feet beneath.

'Oh, good heavens!' he cried in anguish.

'What?'

'My object-glass broken!'

'Is it of much value?'

'It cost all I possess!'

He ran round by the steps to the lower lawn, Lady Constantine
following, as he continued, 'It is a magnificent eight-inch first
quality object lens! I took advantage of my journey to London to
get it! I have been six weeks making the tube of milled board; and
as I had not enough money by twelve pounds for the lens, I borrowed
it of my grandmother out of her last annuity payment. What can be,
can be done!'

'Perhaps it is not broken.'

He felt on the ground, found the parcel, and shook it. A clicking
noise issued from inside. Swithin smote his forehead with his hand,
and walked up and down like a mad fellow.

'My telescope! I have waited nine months for this lens. Now the
possibility of setting up a really powerful instrument is over! It
is too cruel--how could it happen!. . . Lady Constantine, I am
ashamed of myself,--before you. Oh, but, Lady Constantine, if you
only knew what it is to a person engaged in science to have the
means of clinching a theory snatched away at the last moment! It is
I against the world; and when the world has accidents on its side in
addition to its natural strength, what chance for me!'

The young astronomer leant against the wall, and was silent. His
misery was of an intensity and kind with that of Palissy, in these
struggles with an adverse fate.

'Don't mind it,--pray don't!' said Lady Constantine. 'It is
dreadfully unfortunate! You have my whole sympathy. Can it be
mended?'

'Mended,--no, no!'

'Cannot you do with your present one a little longer?'

'It is altogether inferior, cheap, and bad!'

'I'll get you another,--yes, indeed, I will! Allow me to get you
another as soon as possible. I'll do anything to assist you out of
your trouble; for I am most anxious to see you famous. I know you
will be a great astronomer, in spite of this mishap! Come, say I
may get a new one.'

Swithin took her hand. He could not trust himself to speak.


Some days later a little box of peculiar kind came to the Great
House. It was addressed to Lady Constantine, 'with great care.'
She had it partly opened and taken to her own little writing-room;
and after lunch, when she had dressed for walking, she took from the
box a paper parcel like the one which had met with the accident.
This she hid under her mantle, as if she had stolen it; and, going
out slowly across the lawn, passed through the little door before
spoken of, and was soon hastening in the direction of the Rings-Hill
column.

There was a bright sun overhead on that afternoon of early spring,
and its rays shed an unusual warmth on south-west aspects, though
shady places still retained the look and feel of winter. Rooks were
already beginning to build new nests or to mend up old ones, and
clamorously called in neighbours to give opinions on difficulties in
their architecture. Lady Constantine swerved once from her path, as
if she had decided to go to the homestead where Swithin lived; but
on second thoughts she bent her steps to the column.

Drawing near it she looked up; but by reason of the height of the
parapet nobody could be seen thereon who did not stand on tiptoe.
She thought, however, that her young friend might possibly see her,
if he were there, and come down; and that he was there she soon
ascertained by finding the door unlocked, and the key inside. No
movement, however, reached her ears from above, and she began to
ascend.

Meanwhile affairs at the top of the column had progressed as
follows. The afternoon being exceptionally fine, Swithin had
ascended about two o'clock, and, seating himself at the little table
which he had constructed on the spot, he began reading over his
notes and examining some astronomical journals that had reached him
in the morning. The sun blazed into the hollow roof-space as into a
tub, and the sides kept out every breeze. Though the month was
February below it was May in the abacus of the column. This state
of the atmosphere, and the fact that on the previous night he had
pursued his observations till past two o'clock, produced in him at
the end of half an hour an overpowering inclination to sleep.
Spreading on the lead-work a thick rug which he kept up there, he
flung himself down against the parapet, and was soon in a state of
unconsciousness.

It was about ten minutes afterwards that a soft rustle of silken
clothes came up the spiral staircase, and, hesitating onwards,
reached the orifice, where appeared the form of Lady Constantine.
She did not at first perceive that he was present, and stood still
to reconnoitre. Her eye glanced over his telescope, now wrapped up,
his table and papers, his observing-chair, and his contrivances for
making the best of a deficiency of instruments. All was warm,
sunny, and silent, except that a solitary bee, which had somehow got
within the hollow of the abacus, was singing round inquiringly,
unable to discern that ascent was the only mode of escape. In
another moment she beheld the astronomer, lying in the sun like a
sailor in the main-top.

Lady Constantine coughed slightly; he did not awake. She then
entered, and, drawing the parcel from beneath her cloak, placed it
on the table. After this she waited, looking for a long time at his
sleeping face, which had a very interesting appearance. She seemed
reluctant to leave, yet wanted resolution to wake him; and,
pencilling his name on the parcel, she withdrew to the staircase,
where the brushing of her dress decreased to silence as she receded
round and round on her way to the base.

Swithin still slept on, and presently the rustle began again in the
far-down interior of the column. The door could be heard closing,
and the rustle came nearer, showing that she had shut herself in,--
no doubt to lessen the risk of an accidental surprise by any roaming
villager. When Lady Constantine reappeared at the top, and saw the
parcel still untouched and Swithin asleep as before, she exhibited
some disappointment; but she did not retreat.

Looking again at him, her eyes became so sentimentally fixed on his
face that it seemed as if she could not withdraw them. There lay,
in the shape of an Antinous, no amoroso, no gallant, but a guileless
philosopher. His parted lips were lips which spoke, not of love,
but of millions of miles; those were eyes which habitually gazed,
not into the depths of other eyes, but into other worlds. Within
his temples dwelt thoughts, not of woman's looks, but of stellar
aspects and the configuration of constellations.

Thus, to his physical attractiveness was added the attractiveness of
mental inaccessibility. The ennobling influence of scientific
pursuits was demonstrated by the speculative purity which expressed
itself in his eyes whenever he looked at her in speaking, and in the
childlike faults of manner which arose from his obtuseness to their
difference of sex. He had never, since becoming a man, looked even
so low as to the level of a Lady Constantine. His heaven at present
was truly in the skies, and not in that only other place where they
say it can be found, in the eyes of some daughter of Eve. Would any
Circe or Calypso--and if so, what one?--ever check this pale-haired
scientist's nocturnal sailings into the interminable spaces
overhead, and hurl all his mighty calculations on cosmic force and
stellar fire into Limbo? Oh, the pity of it, if such should be the
case!

She became much absorbed in these very womanly reflections; and at
last Lady Constantine sighed, perhaps she herself did not exactly
know why. Then a very soft expression lighted on her lips and eyes,
and she looked at one jump ten years more youthful than before--
quite a girl in aspect, younger than he. On the table lay his
implements; among them a pair of scissors, which, to judge from the
shreds around, had been used in cutting curves in thick paper for
some calculating process.

What whim, agitation, or attraction prompted the impulse, nobody
knows; but she took the scissors, and, bending over the sleeping
youth, cut off one of the curls, or rather crooks,--for they hardly
reached a curl,--into which each lock of his hair chose to twist
itself in the last inch of its length. The hair fell upon the rug.
She picked it up quickly, returned the scissors to the table, and,
as if her dignity had suddenly become ashamed of her fantasies,
hastened through the door, and descended the staircase.





Two on a Tower by Thomas Hardy
Category:
General Fiction
Nabou.com: the big site