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VIII

Lady Constantine then had the pleasure of beholding a waggon, laden
with packing-cases, moving across the field towards the pillar; and
not many days later Swithin, who had never come to the Great House
since the luncheon, met her in a path which he knew to be one of her
promenades.

'The equatorial is fixed, and the man gone,' he said, half in doubt
as to his speech, for her commands to him not to recognize her
agency or patronage still puzzled him. 'I respectfully wish--you
could come and see it, Lady Constantine.'

'I would rather not; I cannot.'

'Saturn is lovely; Jupiter is simply sublime; I can see double stars
in the Lion and in the Virgin, where I had seen only a single one
before. It is all I required to set me going!'

'I'll come. But--you need say nothing about my visit. I cannot
come to-night, but I will some time this week. Yet only this once,
to try the instrument. Afterwards you must be content to pursue
your studies alone.'

Swithin seemed but little affected at this announcement. 'Hilton
and Pimm's man handed me the bill,' he continued.

'How much is it?'

He told her. 'And the man who has built the hut and dome, and done
the other fixing, has sent in his.' He named this amount also.

'Very well. They shall be settled with. My debts must be paid with
my money, which you shall have at once,--in cash, since a cheque
would hardly do. Come to the house for it this evening. But no,
no--you must not come openly; such is the world. Come to the
window--the window that is exactly in a line with the long snowdrop
bed, in the south front--at eight to-night, and I will give you what
is necessary.'

'Certainly, Lady Constantine,' said the young man.

At eight that evening accordingly, Swithin entered like a spectre
upon the terrace to seek out the spot she had designated. The
equatorial had so entirely absorbed his thoughts that he did not
trouble himself seriously to conjecture the why and wherefore of her
secrecy. If he casually thought of it, he set it down in a general
way to an intensely generous wish on her part not to lessen his
influence among the poorer inhabitants by making him appear the
object of patronage.

While he stood by the long snowdrop bed, which looked up at him like
a nether Milky Way, the French casement of the window opposite
softly opened, and a hand bordered by a glimmer of lace was
stretched forth, from which he received a crisp little parcel,--
bank-notes, apparently. He knew the hand, and held it long enough
to press it to his lips, the only form which had ever occurred to
him of expressing his gratitude to her without the incumbrance of
clumsy words, a vehicle at the best of times but rudely suited to
such delicate merchandise. The hand was hastily withdrawn, as if
the treatment had been unexpected. Then seemingly moved by second
thoughts she bent forward and said, 'Is the night good for
observations?'

'Perfect.'

She paused. 'Then I'll come to-night,' she at last said. 'It makes
no difference to me, after all. Wait just one moment.'

He waited, and she presently emerged, muffled up like a nun;
whereupon they left the terrace and struck across the park together.

Very little was said by either till they were crossing the fallow,
when he asked if his arm would help her. She did not take the
offered support just then; but when they were ascending the
prehistoric earthwork, under the heavy gloom of the fir-trees, she
seized it, as if rather influenced by the oppressive solitude than
by fatigue.

Thus they reached the foot of the column, ten thousand spirits in
prison seeming to gasp their griefs from the funereal boughs
overhead, and a few twigs scratching the pillar with the drag of
impish claws as tenacious as those figuring in St. Anthony's
temptation.

'How intensely dark it is just here!' she whispered. 'I wonder you
can keep in the path. Many ancient Britons lie buried there
doubtless.'

He led her round to the other side, where, feeling his way with his
hands, he suddenly left her, appearing a moment after with a light.

'What place is this?' she exclaimed.

'This is the new wood cabin,' said he.

She could just discern the outline of a little house, not unlike a
bathing-machine without wheels.

'I have kept lights ready here,' he went on, 'as I thought you might
come any evening, and possibly bring company.'

'Don't criticize me for coming alone,' she exclaimed with sensitive
promptness. 'There are social reasons for what I do of which you
know nothing.'

'Perhaps it is much to my discredit that I don't know.'

'Not at all. You are all the better for it. Heaven forbid that I
should enlighten you. Well, I see this is the hut. But I am more
curious to go to the top of the tower, and make discoveries.'

He brought a little lantern from the cabin, and lighted her up the
winding staircase to the temple of that sublime mystery on whose
threshold he stood as priest.

The top of the column was quite changed. The tub-shaped space
within the parapet, formerly open to the air and sun, was now arched
over by a light dome of lath-work covered with felt. But this dome
was not fixed. At the line where its base descended to the parapet
there were half a dozen iron balls, precisely like cannon-shot,
standing loosely in a groove, and on these the dome rested its whole
weight. In the side of the dome was a slit, through which the wind
blew and the North Star beamed, and towards it the end of the great
telescope was directed. This latter magnificent object, with its
circles, axes, and handles complete, was securely fixed in the
middle of the floor.

'But you can only see one part of the sky through that slit,' said
she.

The astronomer stretched out his arm, and the whole dome turned
horizontally round, running on the balls with a rumble like thunder.
Instead of the star Polaris, which had first been peeping in through
the slit, there now appeared the countenances of Castor and Pollux.
Swithin then manipulated the equatorial, and put it through its
capabilities in like manner.

She was enchanted; being rather excitable she even clapped her hands
just once. She turned to him: 'Now are you happy?'

'But it is all YOURS, Lady Constantine.'

'At this moment. But that's a defect which can soon be remedied.
When is your birthday?'

'Next month,--the seventh.'

'Then it shall all be yours,--a birthday present.'

The young man protested; it was too much.

'No, you must accept it all,--equatorial, dome stand, hut, and
everything that has been put here for this astronomical purpose.
The possession of these apparatus would only compromise me. Already
they are reputed to be yours, and they must be made yours. There is
no help for it. If ever' (here her voice lost some firmness),--'if
ever you go away from me,--from this place, I mean,--and marry, and
settle in a new home elsewhere for good, and forget me, you must
take these things, equatorial and all, and never tell your wife or
anybody how they came to be yours.'

'I wish I could do something more for you!' exclaimed the much-moved
astronomer. 'If you could but share my fame,--supposing I get any,
which I may die before doing,--it would be a little compensation.
As to my going away and marrying, I certainly shall not. I may go
away, but I shall never marry.'

'Why not?'

'A beloved science is enough wife for me,--combined, perhaps, with a
little warm friendship with one of kindred pursuits.'

'Who is the friend of kindred pursuits?'

'Yourself I should like it to be.'

'You would have to become a woman before I could be that, publicly;
or I a man,' she replied, with dry melancholy.

'Why I a woman, or you a man, dear Lady Constantine?'

'I cannot explain. No; you must keep your fame and your science all
to yourself, and I must keep my--troubles.'

Swithin, to divert her from melancholy--not knowing that in the
expression of her melancholy thus and now she found much pleasure,--
changed the subject by asking if they should take some observations.

'Yes; the scenery is well hung to-night,' she said looking out upon
the heavens.

Then they proceeded to scan the sky, roving from planet to star,
from single stars to double stars, from double to coloured stars, in
the cursory manner of the merely curious. They plunged down to that
at other times invisible multitude in the back rows of the celestial
theatre: remote layers of constellations whose shapes were new and
singular; pretty twinklers which for infinite ages had spent their
beams without calling forth from a single earthly poet a single
line, or being able to bestow a ray of comfort on a single benighted
traveller.

'And to think,' said Lady Constantine, 'that the whole race of
shepherds, since the beginning of the world,--even those immortal
shepherds who watched near Bethlehem,--should have gone into their
graves without knowing that for one star that lighted them in their
labours, there were a hundred as good behind trying to do so!. . .
I have a feeling for this instrument not unlike the awe I should
feel in the presence of a great magician in whom I really believed.
Its powers are so enormous, and weird, and fantastical, that I
should have a personal fear in being with it alone. Music drew an
angel down, said the poet: but what is that to drawing down
worlds!'

'I often experience a kind of fear of the sky after sitting in the
observing-chair a long time,' he answered. 'And when I walk home
afterwards I also fear it, for what I know is there, but cannot see,
as one naturally fears the presence of a vast formless something
that only reveals a very little of itself. That's partly what I
meant by saying that magnitude, which up to a certain point has
grandeur, has beyond it ghastliness.'

Thus the interest of their sidereal observations led them on, till
the knowledge that scarce any other human vision was travelling
within a hundred million miles of their own gave them such a sense
of the isolation of that faculty as almost to be a sense of
isolation in respect of their whole personality, causing a shudder
at its absoluteness. At night, when human discords and harmonies
are hushed, in a general sense, for the greater part of twelve
hours, there is nothing to moderate the blow with which the
infinitely great, the stellar universe, strikes down upon the
infinitely little, the mind of the beholder; and this was the case
now. Having got closer to immensity than their fellow-creatures,
they saw at once its beauty and its frightfulness. They more and
more felt the contrast between their own tiny magnitudes and those
among which they had recklessly plunged, till they were oppressed
with the presence of a vastness they could not cope with even as an
idea, and which hung about them like a nightmare.

He stood by her while she observed; she by him when they changed
places. Once that Swithin's emancipation from a trammelling body
had been effected by the telescope, and he was well away in space,
she felt her influence over him diminishing to nothing. He was
quite unconscious of his terrestrial neighbourings, and of herself
as one of them. It still further reduced her towards unvarnished
simplicity in her manner to him.

The silence was broken only by the ticking of the clock-work which
gave diurnal motion to the instrument. The stars moved on, the end
of the telescope followed, but their tongues stood still. To expect
that he was ever voluntarily going to end the pause by speech was
apparently futile. She laid her hand upon his arm.

He started, withdrew his eye from the telescope, and brought himself
back to the earth by a visible--almost painful--effort.

'Do come out of it,' she coaxed, with a softness in her voice which
any man but unpractised Swithin would have felt to be exquisite. 'I
feel that I have been so foolish as to put in your hands an
instrument to effect my own annihilation. Not a word have you
spoken for the last ten minutes.'

'I have been mentally getting on with my great theory. I hope soon
to be able to publish it to the world. What, are you going? I will
walk with you, Lady Constantine. When will you come again?'

'When your great theory is published to the world.'





Two on a Tower by Thomas Hardy
Category:
General Fiction
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