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    Ch. 2: The Waiting Supper

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    Chapter 2
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    CHAPTER I

    Whoever had perceived the yeoman standing on Squire Everard's lawn in the
    dusk of that October evening fifty years ago, might have said at first
    sight that he was loitering there from idle curiosity. For a large five-
    light window of the manor-house in front of him was unshuttered and
    uncurtained, so that the illuminated room within could be scanned almost
    to its four corners. Obviously nobody was ever expected to be in this
    part of the grounds after nightfall.

    The apartment thus swept by an eye from without was occupied by two
    persons; they were sitting over dessert, the tablecloth having been
    removed in the old-fashioned way. The fruits were local, consisting of
    apples, pears, nuts, and such other products of the summer as might be
    presumed to grow on the estate. There was strong ale and rum on the
    table, and but little wine. Moreover, the appointments of the dining-
    room were simple and homely even for the date, betokening a countrified
    household of the smaller gentry, without much wealth or ambition--formerly
    a numerous class, but now in great part ousted by the territorial
    landlords.

    One of the two sitters was a young lady in white muslin, who listened
    somewhat impatiently to the remarks of her companion, an elderly,
    rubicund personage, whom the merest stranger could have pronounced to be
    her father. The watcher evinced no signs of moving, and it became
    evident that affairs were not so simple as they first had seemed. The
    tall farmer was in fact no accidental spectator, and he stood by
    premeditation close to the trunk of a tree, so that had any traveller
    passed along the road without the park gate, or even round the lawn to
    the door, that person would scarce have noticed the other,
    notwithstanding that the gate was quite near at hand, and the park little
    larger than a paddock. There was still light enough in the western
    heaven to brighten faintly one side of the man's face, and to show
    against the trunk of the tree behind the admirable cut of his profile;
    also to reveal that the front of the manor-house, small though it seemed,
    was solidly built of stone in that never-to-be-surpassed style for the
    English country residence--the mullioned and transomed Elizabethan.

    The lawn, although neglected, was still as level as a bowling-green--which
    indeed it might once have served for; and the blades of grass before the
    window were raked by the candle-shine, which stretched over them so far
    as to touch the yeoman's face in front.

    Within the dining-room there were also, with one of the twain, the same
    signs of a hidden purpose that marked the farmer. The young lady's mind
    was straying as clearly into the shadows as that of the loiterer was
    fixed upon the room--nay, it could be said that she was quite conscious
    of his presence outside. Impatience caused her foot to beat silently on
    the carpet, and she more than once rose to leave the table. This
    proceeding was checked by her father, who would put his hand upon her
    shoulder and unceremoniously press her down into her chair, till he
    should have concluded his observations. Her replies were brief enough,
    and there was factitiousness in her smiles of assent to his views. A
    small iron casement between two of the mullions was open, and some
    occasional words of the dialogue were audible without.

    'As for drains--how can I put in drains? The pipes don't cost much,
    that's true; but the labour in sinking the trenches is ruination. And
    then the gates--they should be hung to stone posts, otherwise there's no
    keeping them up through harvest.' The Squire's voice was strongly toned
    with the local accent, so that he said 'drains' and 'geats' like the
    rustics on his estate.

    The landscape without grew darker, and the young man's figure seemed to
    be absorbed into the trunk of the tree. The small stars filled in
    between the larger, the nebulae between the small stars, the trees quite
    lost their voice; and if there was still a sound, it was from the cascade
    of a stream which stretched along under the trees that bounded the lawn
    on its northern side.

    At last the young girl did get to her feet and secure her retreat. 'I
    have something to do, papa,' she said. 'I shall not be in the drawing-
    room just yet.'

    'Very well,' replied he. 'Then I won't hurry.' And closing the door
    behind her, he drew his decanters together and settled down in his chair.

    Three minutes after that a woman's shape emerged from the drawing-room
    window, and passing through a wall-door to the entrance front, came
    across the grass. She kept well clear of the dining-room window, but
    enough of its light fell on her to show, escaping from the dark-hooded
    cloak that she wore, stray verges of the same light dress which had
    figured but recently at the dinner-table. The hood was contracted tight
    about her face with a drawing-string, making her countenance small and
    baby-like, and lovelier even than before.

    Without hesitation she brushed across the grass to the tree under which
    the young man stood concealed. The moment she had reached him he
    enclosed her form with his arm. The meeting and embrace, though by no
    means formal, were yet not passionate; the whole proceeding was that of
    persons who had repeated the act so often as to be unconscious of its
    performance. She turned within his arm, and faced in the same direction
    with himself, which was towards the window; and thus they stood without
    speaking, the back of her head leaning against his shoulder. For a while
    each seemed to be thinking his and her diverse thoughts.

    'You have kept me waiting a long time, dear Christine,' he said at last.
    'I wanted to speak to you particularly, or I should not have stayed. How
    came you to be dining at this time o' night?'

    'Father has been out all day, and dinner was put back till six. I know I
    have kept you; but Nicholas, how can I help it sometimes, if I am not to
    run any risk? My poor father insists upon my listening to all he has to
    say; since my brother left he has had nobody else to listen to him; and
    to-night he was particularly tedious on his usual topics--draining, and
    tenant-farmers, and the village people. I must take daddy to London; he
    gets so narrow always staying here.'

    'And what did you say to it all?'

    'Well, I took the part of the tenant-farmers, of course, as the beloved
    of one should in duty do.' There followed a little break or gasp,
    implying a strangled sigh.

    'You are sorry you have encouraged that beloving one?'

    'O no, Nicholas . . . What is it you want to see me for particularly?'

    'I know you are sorry, as time goes on, and everything is at a dead-lock,
    with no prospect of change, and your rural swain loses his freshness!
    Only think, this secret understanding between us has lasted near three
    year, ever since you was a little over sixteen.'

    'Yes; it has been a long time.'

    'And I an untamed, uncultivated man, who has never seen London, and knows
    nothing about society at all.'

    'Not uncultivated, dear Nicholas. Untravelled, socially unpractised, if
    you will,' she said, smiling. 'Well, I did sigh; but not because I
    regret being your promised one. What I do sometimes regret is that the
    scheme, which my meetings with you are but a part of, has not been
    carried out completely. You said, Nicholas, that if I consented to swear
    to keep faith with you, you would go away and travel, and see nations,
    and peoples, and cities, and take a professor with you, and study books
    and art, simultaneously with your study of men and manners; and then come
    back at the end of two years, when I should find that my father would by
    no means be indisposed to accept you as a son-in-law. You said your
    reason for wishing to get my promise before starting was that your mind
    would then be more at rest when you were far away, and so could give
    itself more completely to knowledge than if you went as my unaccepted
    lover only, fuming with anxiety as to how I should be when you came back.
    I saw how reasonable that was; and solemnly swore myself to you in
    consequence. But instead of going to see the world you stay on and on
    here to see me.'

    'And you don't want me to see you?'

    'Yes--no--it is not that. It is that I have latterly felt frightened at
    what I am doing when not in your actual presence. It seems so wicked not
    to tell my father that I have a lover close at hand, within touch and
    view of both of us; whereas if you were absent my conduct would not seem
    quite so treacherous. The realities would not stare at one so. You
    would be a pleasant dream to me, which I should be free to indulge in
    without reproach of my conscience; I should live in hopeful expectation
    of your returning fully qualified to boldly claim me of my father. There,
    I have been terribly frank, I know.'

    He in his turn had lapsed into gloomy breathings now. 'I did plan it as
    you state,' he answered. 'I did mean to go away the moment I had your
    promise. But, dear Christine, I did not foresee two or three things. I
    did not know what a lot of pain it would cost to tear myself from you.
    And I did not know that my stingy uncle--heaven forgive me calling him
    so!--would so flatly refuse to advance me money for my purpose--the
    scheme of travelling with a first-rate tutor costing a formidable sum o'
    money. You have no idea what it would cost!'

    'But I have said that I'll find the money.'

    'Ah, there,' he returned, 'you have hit a sore place. To speak truly,
    dear, I would rather stay unpolished a hundred years than take your
    money.'

    'But why? Men continually use the money of the women they marry.'

    'Yes; but not till afterwards. No man would like to touch your money at
    present, and I should feel very mean if I were to do so in present
    circumstances. That brings me to what I was going to propose. But
    no--upon the whole I will not propose it now.'

    'Ah! I would guarantee expenses, and you won't let me! The money is my
    personal possession: it comes to me from my late grandfather, and not
    from my father at all.'

    He laughed forcedly and pressed her hand. 'There are more reasons why I
    cannot tear myself away,' he added. 'What would become of my uncle's
    farming? Six hundred acres in this parish, and five hundred in the
    next--a constant traipsing from one farm to the other; he can't be in two
    places at once. Still, that might be got over if it were not for the
    other matters. Besides, dear, I still should be a little uneasy, even
    though I have your promise, lest somebody should snap you up away from
    me.'

    'Ah, you should have thought of that before. Otherwise I have committed
    myself for nothing.'

    'I should have thought of it,' he answered gravely. 'But I did not.
    There lies my fault, I admit it freely. Ah, if you would only commit
    yourself a little more, I might at least get over that difficulty! But I
    won't ask you. You have no idea how much you are to me still; you could
    not argue so coolly if you had. What property belongs to you I hate the
    very sound of; it is you I care for. I wish you hadn't a farthing in the
    world but what I could earn for you!'

    'I don't altogether wish that,' she murmured.

    'I wish it, because it would have made what I was going to propose much
    easier to do than it is now. Indeed I will not propose it, although I
    came on purpose, after what you have said in your frankness.'

    'Nonsense, Nic. Come, tell me. How can you be so touchy?'

    'Look at this then, Christine dear.' He drew from his breast-pocket a
    sheet of paper and unfolded it, when it was observable that a seal
    dangled from the bottom.

    'What is it?' She held the paper sideways, so that what there was of
    window-light fell on its surface. 'I can only read the Old English
    letters--why--our names! Surely it is not a marriage-licence?'

    'It is.'

    She trembled. 'O Nic! how could you do this--and without telling me!'

    'Why should I have thought I must tell you? You had not spoken "frankly"
    then as you have now. We have been all to each other more than these two
    years, and I thought I would propose that we marry privately, and that I
    then leave you on the instant. I would have taken my travelling-bag to
    church, and you would have gone home alone. I should not have started on
    my adventures in the brilliant manner of our original plan, but should
    have roughed it a little at first; my great gain would have been that the
    absolute possession of you would have enabled me to work with spirit and
    purpose, such as nothing else could do. But I dare not ask you now--so
    frank as you have been.'

    She did not answer. The document he had produced gave such unexpected
    substantiality to the venture with which she had so long toyed as a vague
    dream merely, that she was, in truth, frightened a little. 'I--don't
    know about it!' she said.

    'Perhaps not. Ah, my little lady, you are wearying of me!'

    'No, Nic,' responded she, creeping closer. 'I am not. Upon my word, and
    truth, and honour, I am not, Nic.'

    'A mere tiller of the soil, as I should be called,' he continued, without
    heeding her. 'And you--well, a daughter of one of the--I won't say
    oldest families, because that's absurd, all families are the same age--one
    of the longest chronicled families about here, whose name is actually the
    name of the place.'

    'That's not much, I am sorry to say! My poor brother--but I won't speak
    of that . . . Well,' she murmured mischievously, after a pause, 'you
    certainly would not need to be uneasy if I were to do this that you want
    me to do. You would have me safe enough in your trap then; I couldn't
    get away!'

    'That's just it!' he said vehemently. 'It is a trap--you feel it so, and
    that though you wouldn't be able to get away from me you might
    particularly wish to! Ah, if I had asked you two years ago you would
    have agreed instantly. But I thought I was bound to wait for the
    proposal to come from you as the superior!'

    'Now you are angry, and take seriously what I meant purely in fun. You
    don't know me even yet! To show you that you have not been mistaken in
    me, I do propose to carry out this licence. I'll marry you, dear
    Nicholas, to-morrow morning.'

    'Ah, Christine! I am afraid I have stung you on to this, so that I
    cannot--'

    'No, no, no!' she hastily rejoined; and there was something in her tone
    which suggested that she had been put upon her mettle and would not
    flinch. 'Take me whilst I am in the humour. What church is the licence
    for?'

    'That I've not looked to see--why our parish church here, of course. Ah,
    then we cannot use it! We dare not be married here.'

    'We do dare,' said she. 'And we will too, if you'll be there.'

    'If I'll be there!'

    They speedily came to an agreement that he should be in the church-porch
    at ten minutes to eight on the following morning, awaiting her; and that,
    immediately after the conclusion of the service which would make them
    one, Nicholas should set out on his long-deferred educational tour,
    towards the cost of which she was resolving to bring a substantial
    subscription with her to church. Then, slipping from him, she went
    indoors by the way she had come, and Nicholas bent his steps homewards.

    CHAPTER II

    Instead of leaving the spot by the gate, he flung himself over the fence,
    and pursued a direction towards the river under the trees. And it was
    now, in his lonely progress, that he showed for the first time outwardly
    that he was not altogether unworthy of her. He wore long water-boots
    reaching above his knees, and, instead of making a circuit to find a
    bridge by which he might cross the Froom--the river aforesaid--he made
    straight for the point whence proceeded the low roar that was at this
    hour the only evidence of the stream's existence. He speedily stood on
    the verge of the waterfall which caused the noise, and stepping into the
    water at the top of the fall, waded through with the sure tread of one
    who knew every inch of his footing, even though the canopy of trees
    rendered the darkness almost absolute, and a false step would have
    precipitated him into the pool beneath. Soon reaching the boundary of
    the grounds, he continued in the same direct line to traverse the
    alluvial valley, full of brooks and tributaries to the main stream--in
    former times quite impassable, and impassable in winter now. Sometimes
    he would cross a deep gully on a plank not wider than the hand; at
    another time he ploughed his way through beds of spear-grass, where at a
    few feet to the right or left he might have been sucked down into a
    morass. At last he reached firm land on the other side of this watery
    tract, and came to his house on the rise behind--Elsenford--an ordinary
    farmstead, from the back of which rose indistinct breathings, belchings,
    and snortings, the rattle of halters, and other familiar features of an
    agriculturist's home.

    While Nicholas Long was packing his bag in an upper room of this
    dwelling, Miss Christine Everard sat at a desk in her own chamber at
    Froom-Everard manor-house, looking with pale fixed countenance at the
    candles.

    'I ought--I must now!' she whispered to herself. 'I should not have
    begun it if I had not meant to carry it through! It runs in the blood of
    us, I suppose.' She alluded to a fact unknown to her lover, the
    clandestine marriage of an aunt under circumstances somewhat similar to
    the present. In a few minutes she had penned the following note:-

    October 13, 183-.

    DEAR MR. BEALAND--Can you make it convenient to yourself to meet me at
    the Church to-morrow morning at eight? I name the early hour because
    it would suit me better than later on in the day. You will find me in
    the chancel, if you can come. An answer yes or no by the bearer of
    this will be sufficient.

    CHRISTINE EVERARD.

    She sent the note to the rector immediately, waiting at a small side-door
    of the house till she heard the servant's footsteps returning along the
    lane, when she went round and met him in the passage. The rector had
    taken the trouble to write a line, and answered that he would meet her
    with pleasure.

    A dripping fog which ushered in the next morning was highly favourable to
    the scheme of the pair. At that time of the century Froom-Everard House
    had not been altered and enlarged; the public lane passed close under its
    walls; and there was a door opening directly from one of the old
    parlours--the south parlour, as it was called--into the lane which led to
    the village. Christine came out this way, and after following the lane
    for a short distance entered upon a path within a belt of plantation, by
    which the church could be reached privately. She even avoided the
    churchyard gate, walking along to a place where the turf without the low
    wall rose into a mound, enabling her to mount upon the coping and spring
    down inside. She crossed the wet graves, and so glided round to the
    door. He was there, with his bag in his hand. He kissed her with a sort
    of surprise, as if he had expected that at the last moment her heart
    would fail her.

    Though it had not failed her, there was, nevertheless, no great ardour in
    Christine's bearing--merely the momentum of an antecedent impulse. They
    went up the aisle together, the bottle-green glass of the old lead
    quarries admitting but little light at that hour, and under such an
    atmosphere. They stood by the altar-rail in silence, Christine's skirt
    visibly quivering at each beat of her heart.

    Presently a quick step ground upon the gravel, and Mr. Bealand came round
    by the front. He was a quiet bachelor, courteous towards Christine, and
    not at first recognizing in Nicholas a neighbouring yeoman (for he lived
    aloofly in the next parish), advanced to her without revealing any
    surprise at her unusual request. But in truth he was surprised, the
    keen interest taken by many country young women at the present day in
    church decoration and festivals being then unknown.

    'Good morning,' he said; and repeated the same words to Nicholas more
    mechanically.

    'Good morning,' she replied gravely. 'Mr. Bealand, I have a serious
    reason for asking you to meet me--us, I may say. We wish you to marry
    us.'

    The rector's gaze hardened to fixity, rather between than upon either of
    them, and he neither moved nor replied for some time.

    'Ah!' he said at last.

    'And we are quite ready.'

    'I had no idea--'

    'It has been kept rather private,' she said calmly.

    'Where are your witnesses?'

    'They are outside in the meadow, sir. I can call them in a moment,' said
    Nicholas.

    'Oh--I see it is--Mr. Nicholas Long,' said Mr. Bealand, and turning again
    to Christine, 'Does your father know of this?'

    'Is it necessary that I should answer that question, Mr. Bealand?'

    'I am afraid it is--highly necessary.'

    Christine began to look concerned.

    'Where is the licence?' the rector asked; 'since there have been no
    banns.'

    Nicholas produced it, Mr. Bealand read it, an operation which occupied
    him several minutes--or at least he made it appear so; till Christine
    said impatiently, 'We are quite ready, Mr. Bealand. Will you proceed?
    Mr. Long has to take a journey of a great many miles to-day.'

    'And you?'

    'No. I remain.'

    Mr. Bealand assumed firmness. 'There is something wrong in this,' he
    said. 'I cannot marry you without your father's presence.'

    'But have you a right to refuse us?' interposed Nicholas. 'I believe we
    are in a position to demand your fulfilment of our request.'

    'No, you are not! Is Miss Everard of age? I think not. I think she is
    months from being so. Eh, Miss Everard?'

    'Am I bound to tell that?'

    'Certainly. At any rate you are bound to write it. Meanwhile I refuse
    to solemnize the service. And let me entreat you two young people to do
    nothing so rash as this, even if by going to some strange church, you may
    do so without discovery. The tragedy of marriage--'

    'Tragedy?'

    'Certainly. It is full of crises and catastrophes, and ends with the
    death of one of the actors. The tragedy of marriage, as I was saying, is
    one I shall not be a party to your beginning with such light hearts, and
    I shall feel bound to put your father on his guard, Miss Everard. Think
    better of it, I entreat you! Remember the proverb, "Marry in haste and
    repent at leisure."'

    Christine, spurred by opposition, almost stormed at him. Nicholas
    implored; but nothing would turn that obstinate rector. She sat down and
    reflected. By-and-by she confronted Mr. Bealand.

    'Our marriage is not to be this morning, I see,' she said. 'Now grant me
    one favour, and in return I'll promise you to do nothing rashly. Do not
    tell my father a word of what has happened here.'

    'I agree--if you undertake not to elope.'

    She looked at Nicholas, and he looked at her. 'Do you wish me to elope,
    Nic?' she asked.

    'No,' he said.

    So the compact was made, and they left the church singly, Nicholas
    remaining till the last, and closing the door. On his way home, carrying
    the well-packed bag which was just now to go no further, the two men who
    were mending water-carriers in the meadows approached the hedge, as if
    they had been on the alert all the time.

    'You said you mid want us for zummat, sir?'

    'All right--never mind,' he answered through the hedge. 'I did not
    require you after all.'

    CHAPTER III

    At a manor not far away there lived a queer and primitive couple who had
    lately been blessed with a son and heir. The christening took place
    during the week under notice, and this had been followed by a feast to
    the parishioners. Christine's father, one of the same generation and
    kind, had been asked to drive over and assist in the entertainment, and
    Christine, as a matter of course, accompanied him.

    When they reached Athelhall, as the house was called, they found the
    usually quiet nook a lively spectacle. Tables had been spread in the
    apartment which lent its name to the whole building--the hall
    proper--covered with a fine open-timbered roof, whose braces, purlins,
    and rafters made a brown thicket of oak overhead. Here tenantry of all
    ages sat with their wives and families, and the servants were assisted in
    their ministrations by the sons and daughters of the owner's friends and
    neighbours. Christine lent a hand among the rest.

    She was holding a plate in each hand towards a huge brown platter of
    baked rice-pudding, from which a footman was scooping a large spoonful,
    when a voice reached her ear over her shoulder: 'Allow me to hold them
    for you.'

    Christine turned, and recognized in the speaker the nephew of the
    entertainer, a young man from London, whom she had already met on two or
    three occasions.

    She accepted the proffered help, and from that moment, whenever he passed
    her in their marchings to and fro during the remainder of the serving, he
    smiled acquaintance. When their work was done, he improved the few words
    into a conversation. He plainly had been attracted by her fairness.

    Bellston was a self-assured young man, not particularly good-looking,
    with more colour in his skin than even Nicholas had. He had flushed a
    little in attracting her notice, though the flush had nothing of
    nervousness in it--the air with which it was accompanied making it
    curiously suggestive of a flush of anger; and even when he laughed it was
    difficult to banish that fancy.

    The late autumn sunlight streamed in through the window panes upon the
    heads and shoulders of the venerable patriarchs of the hamlet, and upon
    the middle-aged, and upon the young; upon men and women who had played
    out, or were to play, tragedies or tragi-comedies in that nook of
    civilization not less great, essentially, than those which, enacted on
    more central arenas, fix the attention of the world. One of the party
    was a cousin of Nicholas Long's, who sat with her husband and children.

    To make himself as locally harmonious as possible, Mr. Bellston remarked
    to his companion on the scene--'It does one's heart good,' he said, 'to
    see these simple peasants enjoying themselves.'

    'O Mr. Bellston!' exclaimed Christine; 'don't be too sure about that word
    "simple"! You little think what they see and meditate! Their reasonings
    and emotions are as complicated as ours.'

    She spoke with a vehemence which would have been hardly present in her
    words but for her own relation to Nicholas. The sense of that produced
    in her a nameless depression thenceforward. The young man, however,
    still followed her up.

    'I am glad to hear you say it,' he returned warmly. 'I was merely
    attuning myself to your mood, as I thought. The real truth is that I
    know more of the Parthians, and Medes, and dwellers in Mesopotamia--almost
    of any people, indeed--than of the English rustics. Travel and
    exploration are my profession, not the study of the British peasantry.'

    Travel. There was sufficient coincidence between his declaration and the
    course she had urged upon her lover, to lend Bellston's account of
    himself a certain interest in Christine's ears. He might perhaps be able
    to tell her something that would be useful to Nicholas, if their dream
    were carried out. A door opened from the hall into the garden, and she
    somehow found herself outside, chatting with Mr. Bellston on this topic,
    till she thought that upon the whole she liked the young man. The garden
    being his uncle's, he took her round it with an air of proprietorship;
    and they went on amongst the Michaelmas daisies and chrysanthemums, and
    through a door to the fruit-garden. A green-house was open, and he went
    in and cut her a bunch of grapes.

    'How daring of you! They are your uncle's.'

    'O, he don't mind--I do anything here. A rough old buffer, isn't he?'

    She was thinking of her Nic, and felt that, by comparison with her
    present acquaintance, the farmer more than held his own as a fine and
    intelligent fellow; but the harmony with her own existence in little
    things, which she found here, imparted an alien tinge to Nicholas just
    now. The latter, idealized by moonlight, or a thousand miles of
    distance, was altogether a more romantic object for a woman's dream than
    this smart new-lacquered man; but in the sun of afternoon, and amid a
    surrounding company, Mr. Bellston was a very tolerable companion.

    When they re-entered the hall, Bellston entreated her to come with him up
    a spiral stair in the thickness of the wall, leading to a passage and
    gallery whence they could look down upon the scene below. The people had
    finished their feast, the newly-christened baby had been exhibited, and a
    few words having been spoken to them they began, amid a racketing of
    forms, to make for the greensward without, Nicholas's cousin and cousin's
    wife and cousin's children among the rest. While they were filing out, a
    voice was heard calling--'Hullo!--here, Jim; where are you?' said
    Bellston's uncle. The young man descended, Christine following at
    leisure.

    'Now will ye be a good fellow,' the Squire continued, 'and set them going
    outside in some dance or other that they know? I'm dog-tired, and I want
    to have a yew words with Mr. Everard before we join 'em--hey, Everard?
    They are shy till somebody starts 'em; afterwards they'll keep gwine
    brisk enough.'

    'Ay, that they wool,' said Squire Everard.

    They followed to the lawn; and here it proved that James Bellston was as
    shy, or rather as averse, as any of the tenantry themselves, to acting
    the part of fugleman. Only the parish people had been at the feast, but
    outlying neighbours had now strolled in for a dance.

    'They want "Speed the Plough,"' said Bellston, coming up breathless. 'It
    must be a country dance, I suppose? Now, Miss Everard, do have pity upon
    me. I am supposed to lead off; but really I know no more about speeding
    the plough than a child just born! Would you take one of the
    villagers?--just to start them, my uncle says. Suppose you take that
    handsome young farmer over there--I don't know his name, but I dare say
    you do--and I'll come on with one of the dairyman's daughters as a second
    couple.'

    Christine turned in the direction signified, and changed colour--though
    in the shade nobody noticed it, 'Oh, yes--I know him,' she said coolly.
    'He is from near our own place--Mr. Nicholas Long.'

    'That's capital--then you can easily make him stand as first couple with
    you. Now I must pick up mine.'

    'I--I think I'll dance with you, Mr. Bellston,' she said with some
    trepidation. 'Because, you see,' she explained eagerly, 'I know the
    figure and you don't--so that I can help you; while Nicholas Long, I
    know, is familiar with the figure, and that will make two couples who
    know it--which is necessary, at least.'

    Bellston showed his gratification by one of his angry-pleasant flushes--he
    had hardly dared to ask for what she proffered freely; and having
    requested Nicholas to take the dairyman's daughter, led Christine to her
    place, Long promptly stepping up second with his charge. There were grim
    silent depths in Nic's character; a small deedy spark in his eye, as it
    caught Christine's, was all that showed his consciousness of her. Then
    the fiddlers began--the celebrated Mellstock fiddlers who, given free
    stripping, could play from sunset to dawn without turning a hair. The
    couples wheeled and swung, Nicholas taking Christine's hand in the course
    of business with the figure, when she waited for him to give it a little
    squeeze; but he did not.

    Christine had the greatest difficulty in steering her partner through the
    maze, on account of his self-will, and when at last they reached the
    bottom of the long line, she was breathless with her hard labour..
    Resting here, she watched Nic and his lady; and, though she had decidedly
    cooled off in these later months, began to admire him anew. Nobody knew
    these dances like him, after all, or could do anything of this sort so
    well. His performance with the dairyman's daughter so won upon her, that
    when 'Speed the Plough' was over she contrived to speak to him.

    'Nic, you are to dance with me next time.'

    He said he would, and presently asked her in a formal public manner,
    lifting his hat gallantly. She showed a little backwardness, which he
    quite understood, and allowed him to lead her to the top, a row of
    enormous length appearing below them as if by magic as soon as they had
    taken their places. Truly the Squire was right when he said that they
    only wanted starting.

    'What is it to be?' whispered Nicholas.

    She turned to the band. 'The Honeymoon,' she said.

    And then they trod the delightful last-century measure of that name,
    which if it had been ever danced better, was never danced with more zest.
    The perfect responsiveness which their tender acquaintance threw into the
    motions of Nicholas and his partner lent to their gyrations the fine
    adjustment of two interacting parts of a single machine. The excitement
    of the movement carried Christine back to the time--the unreflecting
    passionate time, about two years before--when she and Nic had been
    incipient lovers only; and it made her forget the carking anxieties, the
    vision of social breakers ahead, that had begun to take the gilding off
    her position now. Nicholas, on his part, had never ceased to be a lover;
    no personal worries had as yet made him conscious of any staleness,
    flatness, or unprofitableness in his admiration of Christine.

    'Not quite so wildly, Nic,' she whispered. 'I don't object personally;
    but they'll notice us. How came you here?'

    'I heard that you had driven over; and I set out--on purpose for this.'

    'What--you have walked?'

    'Yes. If I had waited for one of uncle's horses I should have been too
    late.'

    'Five miles here and five back--ten miles on foot--merely to dance!'

    'With you. What made you think of this old "Honeymoon" thing?'

    'O! it came into my head when I saw you, as what would have been a
    reality with us if you had not been stupid about that licence, and had
    got it for a distant church.'

    'Shall we try again?'

    'No--I don't know. I'll think it over.'

    The villagers admired their grace and skill, as the dancers themselves
    perceived; but they did not know what accompanied that admiration in one
    spot, at least.

    'People who wonder they can foot it so featly together should know what
    some others think,' a waterman was saying to his neighbour. 'Then their
    wonder would be less.'

    His comrade asked for information.

    'Well--really I hardly believe it--but 'tis said they be man and wife.
    Yes, sure--went to church and did the job a'most afore 'twas light one
    morning. But mind, not a word of this; for 'twould be the loss of a
    winter's work to me if I had spread such a report and it were not true.'

    When the dance had ended she rejoined her own section of the company. Her
    father and Mr. Bellston the elder had now come out from the house, and
    were smoking in the background. Presently she found that her father was
    at her elbow.

    'Christine, don't dance too often with young Long--as a mere matter of
    prudence, I mean, as volk might think it odd, he being one of our own
    neighbouring farmers. I should not mention this to 'ee if he were an
    ordinary young fellow; but being superior to the rest it behoves you to
    be careful.'

    'Exactly, papa,' said Christine.

    But the revived sense that she was deceiving him threw a damp over her
    spirits. 'But, after all,' she said to herself, 'he is a young man of
    Elsenford, handsome, able, and the soul of honour; and I am a young woman
    of the adjoining parish, who have been constantly thrown into
    communication with him. Is it not, by nature's rule, the most proper
    thing in the world that I should marry him, and is it not an absurd
    conventional regulation which says that such a union would be wrong?'

    It may be concluded that the strength of Christine's large-minded
    argument was rather an evidence of weakness than of strength in the
    passion it concerned, which had required neither argument nor reasoning
    of any kind for its maintenance when full and flush in its early days.

    When driving home in the dark with her father she sank into pensive
    silence. She was thinking of Nicholas having to trudge on foot all those
    miles back after his exertions on the sward. Mr. Everard, arousing
    himself from a nap, said suddenly, 'I have something to mention to 'ee,
    by George--so I have, Chris! You probably know what it is?'

    She expressed ignorance, wondering if her father had discovered anything
    of her secret.

    'Well, according to him you know it. But I will tell 'ee. Perhaps you
    noticed young Jim Bellston walking me off down the lawn with him?--whether
    or no, we walked together a good while; and he informed me that he wanted
    to pay his addresses to 'ee. I naturally said that it depended upon
    yourself; and he replied that you were willing enough; you had given him
    particular encouragement--showing your preference for him by specially
    choosing him for your partner--hey? "In that case," says I, "go on and
    conquer--settle it with her--I have no objection." The poor fellow was
    very grateful, and in short, there we left the matter. He'll propose to-
    morrow.'

    She saw now to her dismay what James Bellston had read as encouragement.
    'He has mistaken me altogether,' she said. 'I had no idea of such a
    thing.'

    'What, you won't have him?'

    'Indeed, I cannot!'

    'Chrissy,' said Mr. Everard with emphasis, 'there's noobody whom I should
    so like you to marry as that young man. He's a thoroughly clever fellow,
    and fairly well provided for. He's travelled all over the temperate
    zone; but he says that directly he marries he's going to give up all
    that, and be a regular stay-at-home. You would be nowhere safer than in
    his hands.'

    'It is true,' she answered. 'He is a highly desirable match, and I
    should be well provided for, and probably very safe in his hands.'

    'Then don't be skittish, and stand-to.'

    She had spoken from her conscience and understanding, and not to please
    her father. As a reflecting woman she believed that such a marriage
    would be a wise one. In great things Nicholas was closest to her nature;
    in little things Bellston seemed immeasurably nearer than Nic; and life
    was made up of little things.

    Altogether the firmament looked black for Nicholas Long, notwithstanding
    her half-hour's ardour for him when she saw him dancing with the
    dairyman's daughter. Most great passions, movements, and
    beliefs--individual and national--burst during their decline into a
    temporary irradiation, which rivals their original splendour; and then
    they speedily become extinct. Perhaps the dance had given the last flare-
    up to Christine's love. It seemed to have improvidently consumed for its
    immediate purpose all her ardour forwards, so that for the future there
    was nothing left but frigidity.

    Nicholas had certainly been very foolish about that licence!

    CHAPTER IV

    This laxity of emotional tone was further increased by an incident, when,
    two days later, she kept an appointment with Nicholas in the Sallows. The
    Sallows was an extension of shrubberies and plantations along the banks
    of the Froom, accessible from the lawn of Froom-Everard House only,
    except by wading through the river at the waterfall or elsewhere. Near
    the brink was a thicket of box in which a trunk lay prostrate; this had
    been once or twice their trysting-place, though it was by no means a safe
    one; and it was here she sat awaiting him now.

    The noise of the stream muffled any sound of footsteps, and it was before
    she was aware of his approach that she looked up and saw him wading
    across at the top of the waterfall.

    Noontide lights and dwarfed shadows always banished the romantic aspect
    of her love for Nicholas. Moreover, something new had occurred to
    disturb her; and if ever she had regretted giving way to a tenderness for
    him--which perhaps she had not done with any distinctness--she regretted
    it now. Yet in the bottom of their hearts those two were excellently
    paired, the very twin halves of a perfect whole; and their love was pure.
    But at this hour surfaces showed garishly, and obscured the depths.
    Probably her regret appeared in her face.

    He walked up to her without speaking, the water running from his boots;
    and, taking one of her hands in each of his own, looked narrowly into her
    eyes.

    'Have you thought it over?'

    'What?'

    'Whether we shall try again; you remember saying you would at the dance?'

    'Oh, I had forgotten that!'

    'You are sorry we tried at all!' he said accusingly.

    'I am not so sorry for the fact as for the rumours,' she said.

    'Ah! rumours?'

    'They say we are already married.'

    'Who?'

    'I cannot tell exactly. I heard some whispering to that effect. Somebody
    in the village told one of the servants, I believe. This man said that
    he was crossing the churchyard early on that unfortunate foggy morning,
    and heard voices in the chancel, and peeped through the window as well as
    the dim panes would let him; and there he saw you and me and Mr. Bealand,
    and so on; but thinking his surmises would be dangerous knowledge, he
    hastened on. And so the story got afloat. Then your aunt, too--'

    'Good Lord!--what has she done?'

    The story was, told her, and she said proudly, "O yes, it is true enough.
    I have seen the licence. But it is not to be known yet."'

    'Seen the licence? How the--'

    'Accidentally, I believe, when your coat was hanging somewhere.'

    The information, coupled with the infelicitous word 'proudly,' caused
    Nicholas to flush with mortification. He knew that it was in his aunt's
    nature to make a brag of that sort; but worse than the brag was the fact
    that this was the first occasion on which Christine had deigned to show
    her consciousness that such a marriage would be a source of pride to his
    relatives--the only two he had in the world.

    'You are sorry, then, even to be thought my wife, much less to be it.' He
    dropped her hand, which fell lifelessly.

    'It is not sorry exactly, dear Nic. But I feel uncomfortable and vexed,
    that after screwing up my courage, my fidelity, to the point of going to
    church, you should have so muddled--managed the matter that it has ended
    in neither one thing nor the other. How can I meet acquaintances, when I
    don't know what they are thinking of me?'

    'Then, dear Christine, let us mend the muddle. I'll go away for a few
    days and get another licence, and you can come to me.'

    She shrank from this perceptibly. 'I cannot screw myself up to it a
    second time,' she said. 'I am sure I cannot! Besides, I promised Mr.
    Bealand. And yet how can I continue to see you after such a rumour? We
    shall be watched now, for certain.'

    'Then don't see me.'

    'I fear I must not for the present. Altogether--'

    'What?'

    'I am very depressed.'

    These views were not very inspiriting to Nicholas, as he construed them.
    It may indeed have been possible that he construed them wrongly, and
    should have insisted upon her making the rumour true. Unfortunately,
    too, he had come to her in a hurry through brambles and briars, water and
    weed, and the shaggy wildness which hung about his appearance at this
    fine and correct time of day lent an impracticability to the look of him.

    'You blame me--you repent your courses--you repent that you ever, ever
    owned anything to me!'

    'No, Nicholas, I do not repent that,' she returned gently, though with
    firmness. 'But I think that you ought not to have got that licence
    without asking me first; and I also think that you ought to have known
    how it would be if you lived on here in your present position, and made
    no effort to better it. I can bear whatever comes, for social ruin is
    not personal ruin or even personal disgrace. But as a sensible,
    new-risen poet says, whom I have been reading this morning:-

    The world and its ways have a certain worth:
    And to press a point while these oppose
    Were simple policy. Better wait.

    As soon as you had got my promise, Nic, you should have gone away--yes--and
    made a name, and come back to claim me. That was my silly girlish dream
    about my hero.'

    'Perhaps I can do as much yet! And would you have indeed liked better to
    live away from me for family reasons, than to run a risk in seeing me for
    affection's sake? O what a cold heart it has grown! If I had been a
    prince, and you a dairymaid, I'd have stood by you in the face of the
    world!'

    She shook her head. 'Ah--you don't know what society is--you don't
    know.'

    'Perhaps not. Who was that strange gentleman of about seven-and-twenty I
    saw at Mr. Bellston's christening feast?'

    'Oh--that was his nephew James. Now he is a man who has seen an unusual
    extent of the world for his age. He is a great traveller, you know.'

    'Indeed.'

    'In fact an explorer. He is very entertaining.'

    'No doubt.'

    Nicholas received no shock of jealousy from her announcement. He knew
    her so well that he could see she was not in the least in love with
    Bellston. But he asked if Bellston were going to continue his
    explorations.

    'Not if he settles in life. Otherwise he will, I suppose.'

    'Perhaps I could be a great explorer, too, if I tried.'

    'You could, I am sure.'

    They sat apart, and not together; each looking afar off at vague objects,
    and not in each other's eyes. Thus the sad autumn afternoon waned, while
    the waterfall hissed sarcastically of the inevitableness of the
    unpleasant. Very different this from the time when they had first met
    there.

    The nook was most picturesque; but it looked horridly common and stupid
    now. Their sentiment had set a colour hardly less visible than a
    material one on surrounding objects, as sentiment must where life is but
    thought. Nicholas was as devoted as ever to the fair Christine; but
    unhappily he too had moods and humours, and the division between them was
    not closed.

    She had no sooner got indoors and sat down to her work-table than her
    father entered the drawing-room.

    She handed him his newspaper; he took it without a word, went and stood
    on the hearthrug, and flung the paper on the floor.

    'Christine, what's the meaning of this terrible story? I was just on my
    way to look at the register.'

    She looked at him without speech.

    'You have married--Nicholas Long?'

    'No, father.'

    'No? Can you say no in the face of such facts as I have been put in
    possession of?'

    'Yes.'

    'But--the note you wrote to the rector--and the going to church?'

    She briefly explained that their attempt had failed.

    'Ah! Then this is what that dancing meant, was it? By ---, it makes me
    ---. How long has this been going on, may I ask?'

    'This what?'

    'What, indeed! Why, making him your beau. Now listen to me. All's well
    that ends well; from this day, madam, this moment, he is to be nothing
    more to you. You are not to see him. Cut him adrift instantly! I only
    wish his volk were on my farm--out they should go, or I would know the
    reason why. However, you are to write him a letter to this effect at
    once.'

    'How can I cut him adrift?'

    'Why not? You must, my good maid!'

    'Well, though I have not actually married him, I have solemnly sworn to
    be his wife when he comes home from abroad to claim me. It would be
    gross perjury not to fulfil my promise. Besides, no woman can go to
    church with a man to deliberately solemnize matrimony, and refuse him
    afterwards, if he does nothing wrong meanwhile.'

    The uttered sound of her strong conviction seemed to kindle in Christine
    a livelier perception of all its bearings than she had known while it had
    lain unformulated in her mind. For when she had done speaking she fell
    down on her knees before her father, covered her face, and said, 'Please,
    please forgive me, papa! How could I do it without letting you know! I
    don't know, I don't know!'

    When she looked up she found that, in the turmoil of his mind, her father
    was moving about the room. 'You are within an ace of ruining yourself,
    ruining me, ruining us all!' he said. 'You are nearly as bad as your
    brother, begad!'

    'Perhaps I am--yes--perhaps I am!'

    'That I should father such a harum-scarum brood!'

    'It is very bad; but Nicholas--'

    'He's a scoundrel!'

    'He is not a scoundrel!' cried she, turning quickly. 'He's as good and
    worthy as you or I, or anybody bearing our name, or any nobleman in the
    kingdom, if you come to that! Only--only'--she could not continue the
    argument on those lines. 'Now, father, listen!' she sobbed; 'if you
    taunt me I'll go off and join him at his farm this very day, and marry
    him to-morrow, that's what I'll do!'

    'I don't taant ye!'

    'I wish to avoid unseemliness as much as you.'

    She went away. When she came back a quarter of an hour later, thinking
    to find the room empty, he was standing there as before, never having
    apparently moved. His manner had quite changed. He seemed to take a
    resigned and entirely different view of circumstances.

    'Christine, here's a paragraph in the paper hinting at a secret wedding,
    and I'm blazed if it don't point to you. Well, since this was to happen,
    I'll bear it, and not complain. All volk have crosses, and this is one
    of mine. Now, this is what I've got to say--I feel that you must carry
    out this attempt at marrying Nicholas Long. Faith, you must! The rumour
    will become a scandal if you don't--that's my view. I have tried to look
    at the brightest side of the case. Nicholas Long is a young man superior
    to most of his class, and fairly presentable. And he's not poor--at
    least his uncle is not. I believe the old muddler could buy me up any
    day. However, a farmer's wife you must be, as far as I can see. As
    you've made your bed, so ye must lie. Parents propose, and ungrateful
    children dispose. You shall marry him, and immediately.'

    Christine hardly knew what to make of this. 'He is quite willing to
    wait, and so am I. We can wait for two or three years, and then he will
    be as worthy as--'

    'You must marry him. And the sooner the better, if 'tis to be done at
    all . . . And yet I did wish you could have been Jim Bellston's wife. I
    did wish it! But no.'

    'I, too, wished it and do still, in one sense,' she returned gently. His
    moderation had won her out of her defiant mood, and she was willing to
    reason with him.

    'You do?' he said surprised.

    'I see that in a worldly sense my conduct with Mr. Long may be considered
    a mistake.'

    'H'm--I am glad to hear that--after my death you may see it more clearly
    still; and you won't have long to wait, to my reckoning.'

    She fell into bitter repentance, and kissed him in her anguish. 'Don't
    say that!' she cried. 'Tell me what to do?'

    'If you'll leave me for an hour or two I'll think. Drive to the market
    and back--the carriage is at the door--and I'll try to collect my senses.
    Dinner can be put back till you return.'

    In a few minutes she was dressed, and the carriage bore her up the hill
    which divided the village and manor from the market-town.

    CHAPTER V

    A quarter of an hour brought her into the High Street, and for want of a
    more important errand she called at the harness-maker's for a dog-collar
    that she required.

    It happened to be market-day, and Nicholas, having postponed the
    engagements which called him thither to keep the appointment with her in
    the Sallows, rushed off at the end of the afternoon to attend to them as
    well as he could. Arriving thus in a great hurry on account of the
    lateness of the hour, he still retained the wild, amphibious appearance
    which had marked him when he came up from the meadows to her side--an
    exceptional condition of things which had scarcely ever before occurred.
    When she crossed the pavement from the shop door, the shopman bowing and
    escorting her to the carriage, Nicholas chanced to be standing at the
    road-waggon office, talking to the master of the waggons. There were a
    good many people about, and those near paused and looked at her transit,
    in the full stroke of the level October sun, which went under the brims
    of their hats, and pierced through their button-holes. From the group
    she heard murmured the words: 'Mrs. Nicholas Long.'

    The unexpected remark, not without distinct satire in its tone, took her
    so greatly by surprise that she was confounded. Nicholas was by this
    time nearer, though coming against the sun he had not yet perceived her.
    Influenced by her father's lecture, she felt angry with him for being
    there and causing this awkwardness. Her notice of him was therefore
    slight, supercilious perhaps, slurred over; and her vexation at his
    presence showed distinctly in her face as she sat down in her seat.
    Instead of catching his waiting eye, she positively turned her head away.

    A moment after she was sorry she had treated him so; but he was gone.

    Reaching home she found on her dressing-table a note from her father. The
    statement was brief:

    I have considered and am of the same opinion. You must marry him. He
    can leave home at once and travel as proposed. I have written to him
    to this effect. I don't want any victuals, so don't wait dinner for
    me.

    Nicholas was the wrong kind of man to be blind to his Christine's
    mortification, though he did not know its entire cause. He had lately
    foreseen something of this sort as possible.

    'It serves me right,' he thought, as he trotted homeward. 'It was
    absurd--wicked of me to lead her on so. The sacrifice would have been
    too great--too cruel!' And yet, though he thus took her part, he flushed
    with indignation every time he said to himself, 'She is ashamed of me!'

    On the ridge which overlooked Froom-Everard he met a neighbour of his--a
    stock-dealer--in his gig, and they drew rein and exchanged a few words. A
    part of the dealer's conversation had much meaning for Nicholas.

    'I've had occasion to call on Squire Everard,' the former said; 'but he
    couldn't see me on account of being quite knocked up at some bad news he
    has heard.'

    Nicholas rode on past Froom-Everard to Elsenford Farm, pondering. He had
    new and startling matter for thought as soon as he got there. The
    Squire's note had arrived. At first he could not credit its import; then
    he saw further, took in the tone of the letter, saw the writer's contempt
    behind the words, and understood that the letter was written as by a man
    hemmed into a corner. Christine was defiantly--insultingly--hurled at
    his head. He was accepted because he was so despised.

    And yet with what respect he had treated her and hers! Now he was
    reminded of what an agricultural friend had said years ago, seeing the
    eyes of Nicholas fixed on Christine as on an angel when she passed:
    'Better a little fire to warm 'ee than a great one to burn 'ee. No good
    can come of throwing your heart there.' He went into the mead, sat down,
    and asked himself four questions:

    1. How could she live near her acquaintance as his wife, even in his
    absence, without suffering martyrdom from the stings of their contempt?

    2. Would not this entail total estrangement between Christine and her
    family also, and her own consequent misery?

    3. Must not such isolation extinguish her affection for him?

    4. Supposing that her father rigged them out as colonists and sent them
    off to America, was not the effect of such exile upon one of her gentle
    nurture likely to be as the last?

    In short, whatever they should embark in together would be cruelty to
    her, and his death would be a relief. It would, indeed, in one aspect be
    a relief to her now, if she were so ashamed of him as she had appeared to
    be that day. Were he dead, this little episode with him would fade away
    like a dream.

    Mr. Everard was a good-hearted man at bottom, but to take his enraged
    offer seriously was impossible. Obviously it was hotly made in his first
    bitterness at what he had heard. The least thing that he could do would
    be to go away and never trouble her more. To travel and learn and come
    back in two years, as mapped out in their first sanguine scheme, required
    a staunch heart on her side, if the necessary expenditure of time and
    money were to be afterwards justified; and it were folly to calculate on
    that when he had seen to-day that her heart was failing her already. To
    travel and disappear and not be heard of for many years would be a far
    more independent stroke, and it would leave her entirely unfettered.
    Perhaps he might rival in this kind the accomplished Mr. Bellston, of
    whose journeyings he had heard so much.

    He sat and sat, and the fog rose out of the river, enveloping him like a
    fleece; first his feet and knees, then his arms and body, and finally
    submerging his head. When he had come to a decision he went up again
    into the homestead. He would be independent, if he died for it, and he
    would free Christine. Exile was the only course. The first step was to
    inform his uncle of his determination.

    Two days later Nicholas was on the same spot in the mead, at almost the
    same hour of eve. But there was no fog now; a blusterous autumn wind had
    ousted the still, golden days and misty nights; and he was going, full of
    purpose, in the opposite direction. When he had last entered the mead he
    was an inhabitant of the Froom valley; in forty-eight hours he had
    severed himself from that spot as completely as if he had never belonged
    to it. All that appertained to him in the Froom valley now was
    circumscribed by the portmanteau in his hand.

    In making his preparations for departure he had unconsciously held a
    faint, foolish hope that she would communicate with him and make up their
    estrangement in some soft womanly way. But she had given no signal, and
    it was too evident to him that her latest mood had grown to be her fixed
    one, proving how well founded had been his impulse to set her free.

    He entered the Sallows, found his way in the dark to the garden-door of
    the house, slipped under it a note to tell her of his departure, and
    explaining its true reason to be a consciousness of her growing feeling
    that he was an encumbrance and a humiliation. Of the direction of his
    journey and of the date of his return he said nothing.

    His course now took him into the high road, which he pursued for some
    miles in a north-easterly direction, still spinning the thread of sad
    inferences, and asking himself why he should ever return. At daybreak he
    stood on the hill above Shottsford-Forum, and awaited a coach which
    passed about this time along that highway towards Melchester and London.

    CHAPTER VI

    Some fifteen years after the date of the foregoing incidents, a man who
    had dwelt in far countries, and viewed many cities, arrived at Roy-Town,
    a roadside hamlet on the old western turnpike road, not five miles from
    Froom-Everard, and put up at the Buck's Head, an isolated inn at that
    spot. He was still barely of middle age, but it could be seen that a
    haze of grey was settling upon the locks of his hair, and that his face
    had lost colour and curve, as if by exposure to bleaching climates and
    strange atmospheres, or from ailments incidental thereto. He seemed to
    observe little around him, by reason of the intrusion of his musings upon
    the scene. In truth Nicholas Long was just now the creature of old hopes
    and fears consequent upon his arrival--this man who once had not cared if
    his name were blotted out from that district. The evening light showed
    wistful lines which he could not smooth away by the worldling's gloss of
    nonchalance that he had learnt to fling over his face.

    The Buck's Head was a somewhat unusual place for a man of this sort to
    choose as a house of sojourn in preference to some Casterbridge inn four
    miles further on. Before he left home it had been a lively old tavern at
    which High-flyers, and Heralds, and Tally-hoes had changed horses on
    their stages up and down the country; but now the house was rather
    cavernous and chilly, the stable-roofs were hollow-backed, the landlord
    was asthmatic, and the traffic gone.

    He arrived in the afternoon, and when he had sent back the fly and was
    having a nondescript meal, he put a question to the waiting-maid with a
    mien of indifference.

    'Squire Everard, of Froom-Everard Manor, has been dead some years, I
    believe?'

    She replied in the affirmative.

    'And are any of the family left there still?'

    'O no, bless you, sir! They sold the place years ago--Squire Everard's
    son did--and went away. I've never heard where they went to. They came
    quite to nothing.'

    'Never heard anything of the young lady--the Squire's daughter?'

    'No. You see 'twas before I came to these parts.'

    When the waitress left the room, Nicholas pushed aside his plate and
    gazed out of the window. He was not going over into the Froom Valley
    altogether on Christine's account, but she had greatly animated his
    motive in coming that way. Anyhow he would push on there now that he was
    so near, and not ask questions here where he was liable to be wrongly
    informed. The fundamental inquiry he had not ventured to make--whether
    Christine had married before the family went away. He had abstained
    because of an absurd dread of extinguishing hopeful surmise. That the
    Everards had left their old home was bad enough intelligence for one day.

    Rising from the table he put on his hat and went out, ascending towards
    the upland which divided this district from his native vale. The first
    familiar feature that met his eye was a little spot on the distant sky--a
    clump of trees standing on a barrow which surmounted a yet more remote
    upland--a point where, in his childhood, he had believed people could
    stand and see America. He reached the further verge of the plateau on
    which he had entered. Ah, there was the valley--a greenish-grey stretch
    of colour--still looking placid and serene, as though it had not much
    missed him. If Christine was no longer there, why should he pause over
    it this evening? His uncle and aunt were dead, and to-morrow would be
    soon enough to inquire for remoter relatives. Thus, disinclined to go
    further, he turned to retrace his way to the inn.

    In the backward path he now perceived the figure of a woman, who had been
    walking at a distance behind him; and as she drew nearer he began to be
    startled. Surely, despite the variations introduced into that figure by
    changing years, its ground-lines were those of Christine?

    Nicholas had been sentimental enough to write to Christine immediately on
    landing at Southampton a day or two before this, addressing his letter at
    a venture to the old house, and merely telling her that he planned to
    reach the Roy-Town inn on the present afternoon. The news of the
    scattering of the Everards had dissipated his hope of hearing of her; but
    here she was.

    So they met--there, alone, on the open down by a pond, just as if the
    meeting had been carefully arranged.

    She threw up her veil. She was still beautiful, though the years had
    touched her; a little more matronly--much more homely. Or was it only
    that he was much less homely now--a man of the world--the sense of
    homeliness being relative? Her face had grown to be pre-eminently of the
    sort that would be called interesting. Her habiliments were of a demure
    and sober cast, though she was one who had used to dress so airily and so
    gaily. Years had laid on a few shadows too in this.

    'I received your letter,' she said, when the momentary embarrassment of
    their first approach had passed. 'And I thought I would walk across the
    hills to-day, as it was fine. I have just called at the inn, and they
    told me you were out. I was now on my way homeward.'

    He hardly listened to this, though he intently gazed at her. 'Christine,'
    he said, 'one word. Are you free?'

    'I--I am in a certain sense,' she replied, colouring.

    The announcement had a magical effect. The intervening time between past
    and present closed up for him, and moved by an impulse which he had
    combated for fifteen years, he seized her two hands and drew her towards
    him.

    She started back, and became almost a mere acquaintance. 'I have to tell
    you,' she gasped, 'that I have--been married.'

    Nicholas's rose-coloured dream was immediately toned down to a greyish
    tinge.

    'I did not marry till many years after you had left,' she continued in
    the humble tones of one confessing to a crime. 'Oh Nic,' she cried
    reproachfully, 'how could you stay away so long?'

    'Whom did you marry?'

    'Mr. Bellston.'

    'I--ought to have expected it.' He was going to add, 'And is he dead?'
    but he checked himself. Her dress unmistakably suggested widowhood; and
    she had said she was free.

    'I must now hasten home,' said she. 'I felt that, considering my
    shortcomings at our parting so many years ago, I owed you the initiative
    now.'

    'There is some of your old generosity in that. I'll walk with you, if I
    may. Where are you living, Christine?'

    'In the same house, but not on the old conditions. I have part of it on
    lease; the farmer now tenanting the premises found the whole more than he
    wanted, and the owner allowed me to keep what rooms I chose. I am poor
    now, you know, Nicholas, and almost friendless. My brother sold the
    Froom-Everard estate when it came to him, and the person who bought it
    turned our home into a farmhouse. Till my father's death my husband and
    I lived in the manor-house with him, so that I have never lived away from
    the spot.'

    She was poor. That, and the change of name, sufficiently accounted for
    the inn-servant's ignorance of her continued existence within the walls
    of her old home.

    It was growing dusk, and he still walked with her. A woman's head arose
    from the declivity before them, and as she drew nearer, Christine asked
    him to go back.

    'This is the wife of the farmer who shares the house,' she said. 'She is
    accustomed to come out and meet me whenever I walk far and am benighted.
    I am obliged to walk everywhere now.'

    The farmer's wife, seeing that Christine was not alone, paused in her
    advance, and Nicholas said, 'Dear Christine, if you are obliged to do
    these things, I am not, and what wealth I can command you may command
    likewise. They say rolling stones gather no moss; but they gather dross
    sometimes. I was one of the pioneers to the gold-fields, you know, and
    made a sufficient fortune there for my wants. What is more, I kept it.
    When I had done this I was coming home, but hearing of my uncle's death I
    changed my plan, travelled, speculated, and increased my fortune. Now,
    before we part: you remember you stood with me at the altar once, and
    therefore I speak with less preparation than I should otherwise use.
    Before we part then I ask, shall another again intrude between us? Or
    shall we complete the union we began?'

    She trembled--just as she had done at that very minute of standing with
    him in the church, to which he had recalled her mind. 'I will not enter
    into that now, dear Nicholas,' she replied. 'There will be more to talk
    of and consider first--more to explain, which it would have spoiled this
    meeting to have entered into now.'

    'Yes, yes; but--'

    'Further than the brief answer I first gave, Nic, don't press me
    to-night. I still have the old affection for you, or I should not have
    sought you. Let that suffice for the moment.'

    'Very well, dear one. And when shall I call to see you?'

    'I will write and fix an hour. I will tell you everything of my history
    then.'

    And thus they parted, Nicholas feeling that he had not come here
    fruitlessly. When she and her companion were out of sight he retraced
    his steps to Roy-Town, where he made himself as comfortable as he could
    in the deserted old inn of his boyhood's days. He missed her
    companionship this evening more than he had done at any time during the
    whole fifteen years; and it was as though instead of separation there had
    been constant communion with her throughout that period. The tones of
    her voice had stirred his heart in a nook which had lain stagnant ever
    since he last heard them. They recalled the woman to whom he had once
    lifted his eyes as to a goddess. Her announcement that she had been
    another's came as a little shock to him, and he did not now lift his eyes
    to her in precisely the same way as he had lifted them at first. But he
    forgave her for marrying Bellston; what could he expect after fifteen
    years?

    He slept at Roy-Town that night, and in the morning there was a short
    note from her, repeating more emphatically her statement of the previous
    evening--that she wished to inform him clearly of her circumstances, and
    to calmly consider with him the position in which she was placed. Would
    he call upon her on Sunday afternoon, when she was sure to be alone?

    'Nic,' she wrote on, 'what a cosmopolite you are! I expected to find my
    old yeoman still; but I was quite awed in the presence of such a citizen
    of the world. Did I seem rusty and unpractised? Ah--you seemed so once
    to me!'

    Tender playful words; the old Christine was in them. She said Sunday
    afternoon, and it was now only Saturday morning. He wished she had said
    to-day; that short revival of her image had vitalized to sudden heat
    feelings that had almost been stilled. Whatever she might have to
    explain as to her position--and it was awkwardly narrowed, no doubt--he
    could not give her up. Miss Everard or Mrs. Bellston, what mattered
    it?--she was the same Christine.

    He did not go outside the inn all Saturday. He had no wish to see or do
    anything but to await the coming interview. So he smoked, and read the
    local newspaper of the previous week, and stowed himself in the chimney-
    corner. In the evening he felt that he could remain indoors no longer,
    and the moon being near the full, he started from the inn on foot in the
    same direction as that of yesterday, with the view of contemplating the
    old village and its precincts, and hovering round her house under the
    cloak of night.

    With a stout stick in his hand he climbed over the five miles of upland
    in a comparatively short space of time. Nicholas had seen many strange
    lands and trodden many strange ways since he last walked that path, but
    as he trudged he seemed wonderfully like his old self, and had not the
    slightest difficulty in finding the way. In descending to the meads the
    streams perplexed him a little, some of the old foot-bridges having been
    removed; but he ultimately got across the larger water-courses, and
    pushed on to the village, avoiding her residence for the moment, lest she
    should encounter him, and think he had not respected the time of her
    appointment.

    He found his way to the churchyard, and first ascertained where lay the
    two relations he had left alive at his departure; then he observed the
    gravestones of other inhabitants with whom he had been well acquainted,
    till by degrees he seemed to be in the society of all the elder Froom-
    Everard population, as he had known the place. Side by side as they had
    lived in his day here were they now. They had moved house in mass.

    But no tomb of Mr. Bellston was visible, though, as he had lived at the
    manor-house, it would have been natural to find it here. In truth
    Nicholas was more anxious to discover that than anything, being curious
    to know how long he had been dead. Seeing from the glimmer of a light in
    the church that somebody was there cleaning for Sunday he entered, and
    looked round upon the walls as well as he could. But there was no
    monument to her husband, though one had been erected to the Squire.

    Nicholas addressed the young man who was sweeping. 'I don't see any
    monument or tomb to the late Mr. Bellston?'

    'O no, sir; you won't see that,' said the young man drily.

    'Why, pray?'

    'Because he's not buried here. He's not Christian-buried anywhere, as
    far as we know. In short, perhaps he's not buried at all; and between
    ourselves, perhaps he's alive.'

    Nicholas sank an inch shorter. 'Ah,' he answered.

    'Then you don't know the peculiar circumstances, sir?'

    'I am a stranger here--as to late years.'

    'Mr. Bellston was a traveller--an explorer--it was his calling; you may
    have heard his name as such?'

    'I remember.' Nicholas recalled the fact that this very bent of Mr.
    Bellston's was the incentive to his own roaming.

    'Well, when he married he came and lived here with his wife and his
    wife's father, and said he would travel no more. But after a time he got
    weary of biding quiet here, and weary of her--he was not a good husband
    to the young lady by any means--and he betook himself again to his old
    trick of roving--with her money. Away he went, quite out of the realm of
    human foot, into the bowels of Asia, and never was heard of more. He was
    murdered, it is said, but nobody knows; though as that was nine years ago
    he's dead enough in principle, if not in corporation. His widow lives
    quite humble, for between her husband and her brother she's left in very
    lean pasturage.'

    Nicholas went back to the Buck's Head without hovering round her
    dwelling. This then was the explanation which she had wanted to make.
    Not dead, but missing. How could he have expected that the first fair
    promise of happiness held out to him would remain untarnished? She had
    said that she was free; and legally she was free, no doubt. Moreover,
    from her tone and manner he felt himself justified in concluding that she
    would be willing to run the risk of a union with him, in the
    improbability of her husband's existence. Even if that husband lived,
    his return was not a likely event, to judge from his character. A man
    who could spend her money on his own personal adventures would not be
    anxious to disturb her poverty after such a lapse of time.

    Well, the prospect was not so unclouded as it had seemed. But could he,
    even now, give up Christine?

    CHAPTER VII

    Two months more brought the year nearly to a close, and found Nicholas
    Long tenant of a spacious house in the market-town nearest to
    Froom-Everard. A man of means, genial character, and a bachelor, he was
    an object of great interest to his neighbours, and to his neighbours'
    wives and daughters. But he took little note of this, and had made it
    his business to go twice a week, no matter what the weather, to the now
    farmhouse at Froom-Everard, a wing of which had been retained as the
    refuge of Christine. He always walked, to give no trouble in putting up
    a horse to a housekeeper whose staff was limited.

    The two had put their heads together on the situation, had gone to a
    solicitor, had balanced possibilities, and had resolved to make the
    plunge of matrimony. 'Nothing venture, nothing have,' Christine had
    said, with some of her old audacity.

    With almost gratuitous honesty they had let their intentions be widely
    known. Christine, it is true, had rather shrunk from publicity at first;
    but Nicholas argued that their boldness in this respect would have good
    results. With his friends he held that there was not the slightest
    probability of her being other than a widow, and a challenge to the
    missing man now, followed by no response, would stultify any unpleasant
    remarks which might be thrown at her after their union. To this end a
    paragraph was inserted in the Wessex papers, announcing that their
    marriage was proposed to be celebrated on such and such a day in
    December.

    His periodic walks along the south side of the valley to visit her were
    among the happiest experiences of his life. The yellow leaves falling
    around him in the foreground, the well-watered meads on the left hand,
    and the woman he loved awaiting him at the back of the scene, promised a
    future of much serenity, as far as human judgment could foresee. On
    arriving, he would sit with her in the 'parlour' of the wing she
    retained, her general sitting-room, where the only relics of her early
    surroundings were an old clock from the other end of the house, and her
    own piano. Before it was quite dark they would stand, hand in hand,
    looking out of the window across the flat turf to the dark clump of trees
    which hid further view from their eyes.

    'Do you wish you were still mistress here, dear?' he once said.

    'Not at all,' said she cheerfully. 'I have a good enough room, and a
    good enough fire, and a good enough friend. Besides, my latter days as
    mistress of the house were not happy ones, and they spoilt the place for
    me. It was a punishment for my faithlessness. Nic, you do forgive me?
    Really you do?'

    The twenty-third of December, the eve of the wedding-day, had arrived at
    last in the train of such uneventful ones as these. Nicholas had
    arranged to visit her that day a little later than usual, and see that
    everything was ready with her for the morrow's event and her removal to
    his house; for he had begun to look after her domestic affairs, and to
    lighten as much as possible the duties of her housekeeping.

    He was to come to an early supper, which she had arranged to take the
    place of a wedding-breakfast next day--the latter not being feasible in
    her present situation. An hour or so after dark the wife of the farmer
    who lived in the other part of the house entered Christine's parlour to
    lay the cloth.

    'What with getting the ham skinned, and the black-puddings hotted up,'
    she said, 'it will take me all my time before he's here, if I begin this
    minute.'

    'I'll lay the table myself,' said Christine, jumping up. 'Do you attend
    to the cooking.'

    'Thank you, ma'am. And perhaps 'tis no matter, seeing that it is the
    last night you'll have to do such work. I knew this sort of life
    wouldn't last long for 'ee, being born to better things.'

    'It has lasted rather long, Mrs. Wake. And if he had not found me out it
    would have lasted all my days.'

    'But he did find you out.'

    'He did. And I'll lay the cloth immediately.'

    Mrs. Wake went back to the kitchen, and Christine began to bustle about.
    She greatly enjoyed preparing this table for Nicholas and herself with
    her own hands. She took artistic pleasure in adjusting each article to
    its position, as if half an inch error were a point of high importance.
    Finally she placed the two candles where they were to stand, and sat down
    by the fire.

    Mrs. Wake re-entered and regarded the effect. 'Why not have another
    candle or two, ma'am?' she said. "Twould make it livelier. Say four.'

    'Very well,' said Christine, and four candles were lighted. 'Really,'
    she added, surveying them, 'I have been now so long accustomed to little
    economies that they look quite extravagant.'

    'Ah, you'll soon think nothing of forty in his grand new house! Shall I
    bring in supper directly he comes, ma'am?'

    'No, not for half an hour; and, Mrs. Wake, you and Betsy are busy in the
    kitchen, I know; so when he knocks don't disturb yourselves; I can let
    him in.'

    She was again left alone, and, as it still wanted some time to Nicholas's
    appointment, she stood by the fire, looking at herself in the glass over
    the mantel. Reflectively raising a lock of her hair just above her
    temple she uncovered a small scar. That scar had a history. The
    terrible temper of her late husband--those sudden moods of irascibility
    which had made even his friendly excitements look like anger--had once
    caused him to set that mark upon her with the bezel of a ring he wore. He
    declared that the whole thing was an accident. She was a woman, and kept
    her own opinion.

    Christine then turned her back to the glass and scanned the table and the
    candles, shining one at each corner like types of the four Evangelists,
    and thought they looked too assuming--too confident. She glanced up at
    the clock, which stood also in this room, there not being space enough
    for it in the passage. It was nearly seven, and she expected Nicholas at
    half-past. She liked the company of this venerable article in her lonely
    life: its tickings and whizzings were a sort of conversation. It now
    began to strike the hour. At the end something grated slightly. Then,
    without any warning, the clock slowly inclined forward and fell at full
    length upon the floor.

    The crash brought the farmer's wife rushing into the room. Christine had
    well-nigh sprung out of her shoes. Mrs. Wake's enquiry what had happened
    was answered by the evidence of her own eyes.

    'How did it occur?' she said.

    'I cannot say; it was not firmly fixed, I suppose. Dear me, how sorry I
    am! My dear father's hall-clock! And now I suppose it is ruined.'

    Assisted by Mrs. Wake, she lifted the clock. Every inch of glass was, of
    course, shattered, but very little harm besides appeared to be done. They
    propped it up temporarily, though it would not go again.

    Christine had soon recovered her composure, but she saw that Mrs. Wake
    was gloomy. 'What does it mean, Mrs. Wake?' she said. 'Is it ominous?'

    'It is a sign of a violent death in the family.'

    'Don't talk of it. I don't believe such things; and don't mention it to
    Mr. Long when he comes. He's not in the family yet, you know.'

    'O no, it cannot refer to him,' said Mrs. Wake musingly.

    'Some remote cousin, perhaps,' observed Christine, no less willing to
    humour her than to get rid of a shapeless dread which the incident had
    caused in her own mind. 'And--supper is almost ready, Mrs. Wake?'

    'In three-quarters of an hour.'

    Mrs. Wake left the room, and Christine sat on. Though it still wanted
    fifteen minutes to the hour at which Nicholas had promised to be there,
    she began to grow impatient. After the accustomed ticking the dead
    silence was oppressive. But she had not to wait so long as she had
    expected; steps were heard approaching the door, and there was a knock.

    Christine was already there to open it. The entrance had no lamp, but it
    was not particularly dark out of doors. She could see the outline of a
    man, and cried cheerfully, 'You are early; it is very good of you.'

    'I beg pardon. It is not Mr. Bellston himself--only a messenger with his
    bag and great-coat. But he will be here soon.'

    The voice was not the voice of Nicholas, and the intelligence was
    strange. 'I--I don't understand. Mr. Bellston?' she faintly replied.

    'Yes, ma'am. A gentleman--a stranger to me--gave me these things at
    Casterbridge station to bring on here, and told me to say that Mr.
    Bellston had arrived there, and is detained for half-an-hour, but will be
    here in the course of the evening.'

    She sank into a chair. The porter put a small battered portmanteau on
    the floor, the coat on a chair, and looking into the room at the spread
    table said, 'If you are disappointed, ma'am, that your husband (as I
    s'pose he is) is not come, I can assure you he'll soon be here. He's
    stopped to get a shave, to my thinking, seeing he wanted it. What he
    said was that I could tell you he had heard the news in Ireland, and
    would have come sooner, his hand being forced; but was hindered crossing
    by the weather, having took passage in a sailing vessel. What news he
    meant he didn't say.'

    'Ah, yes,' she faltered. It was plain that the man knew nothing of her
    intended re-marriage.

    Mechanically rising and giving him a shilling, she answered to his 'good-
    night,' and he withdrew, the beat of his footsteps lessening in the
    distance. She was alone; but in what a solitude.

    Christine stood in the middle of the hall, just as the man had left her,
    in the gloomy silence of the stopped clock within the adjoining room,
    till she aroused herself, and turning to the portmanteau and great-coat
    brought them to the light of the candles, and examined them. The
    portmanteau bore painted upon it the initials 'J. B.' in white
    letters--the well-known initials of her husband.

    She examined the great-coat. In the breast-pocket was an empty spirit
    flask, which she firmly fancied she recognized as the one she had filled
    many times for him when he was living at home with her.

    She turned desultorily hither and thither, until she heard another tread
    without, and there came a second knocking at the door. She did not
    respond to it; and Nicholas--for it was he--thinking that he was not
    heard by reason of a concentration on to-morrow's proceedings, opened the
    door softly, and came on to the door of her room, which stood unclosed,
    just as it had been left by the Casterbridge porter.

    Nicholas uttered a blithe greeting, cast his eye round the parlour, which
    with its tall candles, blazing fire, snow-white cloth, and
    prettily-spread table, formed a cheerful spectacle enough for a man who
    had been walking in the dark for an hour.

    'My bride--almost, at last!' he cried, encircling her with his arms.

    Instead of responding, her figure became limp, frigid, heavy; her head
    fell back, and he found that she had fainted.

    It was natural, he thought. She had had many little worrying matters to
    attend to, and but slight assistance. He ought to have seen more
    effectually to her affairs; the closeness of the event had over-excited
    her. Nicholas kissed her unconscious face--more than once, little
    thinking what news it was that had changed its aspect. Loth to call Mrs.
    Wake, he carried Christine to a couch and laid her down. This had the
    effect of reviving her. Nicholas bent and whispered in her ear, 'Lie
    quiet, dearest, no hurry; and dream, dream, dream of happy days. It is
    only I. You will soon be better.' He held her by the hand.

    'No, no, no!' she said, with a stare. 'O, how can this be?'

    Nicholas was alarmed and perplexed, but the disclosure was not long
    delayed. When she had sat up, and by degrees made the stunning event
    known to him, he stood as if transfixed.

    'Ah--is it so?' said he. Then, becoming quite meek, 'And why was he so
    cruel as to--delay his return till now?'

    She dutifully recited the explanation her husband had given her through
    the messenger; but her mechanical manner of telling it showed how much
    she doubted its truth. It was too unlikely that his arrival at such a
    dramatic moment should not be a contrived surprise, quite of a piece with
    his previous dealings towards her.

    'But perhaps it may be true--and he may have become kind now--not as he
    used to be,' she faltered. 'Yes, perhaps, Nicholas, he is an altered
    man--we'll hope he is. I suppose I ought not to have listened to my
    legal advisers, and assumed his death so surely! Anyhow, I am roughly
    received back into--the right way!'

    Nicholas burst out bitterly: 'O what too, too honest fools we were!--to
    so court daylight upon our intention by putting that announcement in the
    papers! Why could we not have married privately, and gone away, so that
    he would never have known what had become of you, even if he had
    returned? Christine, he has done it to . . . But I'll say no more. Of
    course we--might fly now.'

    'No, no; we might not,' said she hastily.

    'Very well. But this is hard to bear! "When I looked for good then evil
    came unto me, and when I waited for light there came darkness." So once
    said a sorely tried man in the land of Uz, and so say I now! . . . I
    wonder if he is almost here at this moment?'

    She told him she supposed Bellston was approaching by the path across the
    fields, having sent on his great-coat, which he would not want walking.

    'And is this meal laid for him, or for me?'

    'It was laid for you.'

    'And it will be eaten by him?'

    'Yes.'

    'Christine, are you sure that he is come, or have you been sleeping over
    the fire and dreaming it?'

    She pointed anew to the portmanteau with the initials 'J. B.,' and to the
    coat beside it.

    'Well, good-bye--good-bye! Curse that parson for not marrying us fifteen
    years ago!'

    It is unnecessary to dwell further upon that parting. There are scenes
    wherein the words spoken do not even approximate to the level of the
    mental communion between the actors. Suffice it to say that part they
    did, and quickly; and Nicholas, more dead than alive, went out of the
    house homewards.

    Why had he ever come back? During his absence he had not cared for
    Christine as he cared now. If he had been younger he might have felt
    tempted to descend into the meads instead of keeping along their edge.
    The Froom was down there, and he knew of quiet pools in that stream to
    which death would come easily. But he was too old to put an end to
    himself for such a reason as love; and another thought, too, kept him
    from seriously contemplating any desperate act. His affection for her
    was strongly protective, and in the event of her requiring a friend's
    support in future troubles there was none but himself left in the world
    to afford it. So he walked on.

    Meanwhile Christine had resigned herself to circumstances. A resolve to
    continue worthy of her history and of her family lent her heroism and
    dignity. She called Mrs. Wake, and explained to that worthy woman as
    much of what had occurred as she deemed necessary. Mrs. Wake was too
    amazed to reply; she retreated slowly, her lips parted; till at the door
    she said with a dry mouth, 'And the beautiful supper, ma'am?'

    'Serve it when he comes.'

    'When Mr. Bellston--yes, ma'am, I will.' She still stood gazing, as if
    she could hardly take in the order.

    'That will do, Mrs. Wake. I am much obliged to you for all your
    kindness.' And Christine was left alone again, and then she wept.

    She sat down and waited. That awful silence of the stopped clock began
    anew, but she did not mind it now. She was listening for a footfall in a
    state of mental tensity which almost took away from her the power of
    motion. It seemed to her that the natural interval for her husband's
    journey thither must have expired; but she was not sure, and waited on.

    Mrs. Wake again came in. 'You have not rung for supper--'

    'He is not yet come, Mrs. Wake. If you want to go to bed, bring in the
    supper and set it on the table. It will be nearly as good cold. Leave
    the door unbarred.'

    Mrs. Wake did as was suggested, made up the fire, and went away. Shortly
    afterwards Christine heard her retire to her chamber. But Christine
    still sat on, and still her husband postponed his entry.

    She aroused herself once or twice to freshen the fire, but was ignorant
    how the night was going. Her watch was upstairs and she did not make the
    effort to go up to consult it. In her seat she continued; and still the
    supper waited, and still he did not come.

    At length she was so nearly persuaded that the arrival of his things must
    have been a dream after all, that she again went over to them, felt them,
    and examined them. His they unquestionably were; and their forwarding by
    the porter had been quite natural. She sighed and sat down again.

    Presently she fell into a doze, and when she again became conscious she
    found that the four candles had burnt into their sockets and gone out.
    The fire still emitted a feeble shine. Christine did not take the
    trouble to get more candles, but stirred the fire and sat on.

    After a long period she heard a creaking of the chamber floor and stairs
    at the other end of the house, and knew that the farmer's family were
    getting up. By-and-by Mrs. Wake entered the room, candle in hand,
    bouncing open the door in her morning manner, obviously without any
    expectation of finding a person there.

    'Lord-a-mercy! What, sitting here again, ma'am?'

    'Yes, I am sitting here still.'

    'You've been there ever since last night?'

    'Yes.'

    'Then--'

    'He's not come.'

    'Well, he won't come at this time o' morning,' said the farmer's wife.
    'Do 'ee get on to bed, ma'am. You must be shrammed to death!'

    It occurred to Christine now that possibly her husband had thought better
    of obtruding himself upon her company within an hour of revealing his
    existence to her, and had decided to pay a more formal visit next day.
    She therefore adopted Mrs. Wake's suggestion and retired.

    CHAPTER VIII

    Nicholas had gone straight home, neither speaking to nor seeing a soul.
    From that hour a change seemed to come over him. He had ever possessed a
    full share of self-consciousness; he had been readily piqued, had shown
    an unusual dread of being personally obtrusive. But now his sense of
    self, as an individual provoking opinion, appeared to leave him. When,
    therefore, after a day or two of seclusion, he came forth again, and the
    few acquaintances he had formed in the town condoled with him on what had
    happened, and pitied his haggard looks, he did not shrink from their
    regard as he would have done formerly, but took their sympathy as it
    would have been accepted by a child.

    It reached his ears that Bellston had not appeared on the evening of his
    arrival at any hotel in the town or neighbourhood, or entered his wife's
    house at all. 'That's a part of his cruelty,' thought Nicholas. And
    when two or three days had passed, and still no account came to him of
    Bellston having joined her, he ventured to set out for Froom-Everard.

    Christine was so shaken that she was obliged to receive him as she lay on
    a sofa, beside the square table which was to have borne their evening
    feast. She fixed her eyes wistfully upon him, and smiled a sad smile.

    'He has not come?' said Nicholas under his breath.

    'He has not.'

    Then Nicholas sat beside her, and they talked on general topics merely
    like saddened old friends. But they could not keep away the subject of
    Bellston, their voices dropping as it forced its way in. Christine, no
    less than Nicholas, knowing her husband's character, inferred that,
    having stopped her game, as he would have phrased it, he was taking
    things leisurely, and, finding nothing very attractive in her limited
    mode of living, was meaning to return to her only when he had nothing
    better to do.

    The bolt which laid low their hopes had struck so recently that they
    could hardly look each other in the face when speaking that day. But
    when a week or two had passed, and all the horizon still remained as
    vacant of Bellston as before, Nicholas and she could talk of the event
    with calm wonderment. Why had he come, to go again like this?

    And then there set in a period of resigned surmise, during which

    So like, so very like, was day to day,

    that to tell of one of them is to tell of all. Nicholas would arrive
    between three and four in the afternoon, a faint trepidation influencing
    his walk as he neared her door. He would knock; she would always reply
    in person, having watched for him from the window. Then he would
    whisper--'He has not come?'

    'He has not,' she would say.

    Nicholas would enter then, and she being ready bonneted, they would walk
    into the Sallows together as far as to the spot which they had frequently
    made their place of appointment in their youthful days. A plank bridge,
    which Bellston had caused to be thrown over the stream during his
    residence with her in the manor-house, was now again removed, and all was
    just the same as in Nicholas's time, when he had been accustomed to wade
    across on the edge of the cascade and come up to her like a merman from
    the deep. Here on the felled trunk, which still lay rotting in its old
    place, they would now sit, gazing at the descending sheet of water, with
    its never-ending sarcastic hiss at their baffled attempts to make
    themselves one flesh. Returning to the house they would sit down
    together to tea, after which, and the confidential chat that accompanied
    it, he walked home by the declining light. This proceeding became as
    periodic as an astronomical recurrence. Twice a week he came--all
    through that winter, all through the spring following, through the
    summer, through the autumn, the next winter, the next year, and the next,
    till an appreciable span of human life had passed by. Bellston still
    tarried.

    Years and years Nic walked that way, at this interval of three days, from
    his house in the neighbouring town; and in every instance the aforesaid
    order of things was customary; and still on his arrival the form of words
    went on--'He has not come?'

    'He has not.'

    So they grew older. The dim shape of that third one stood continually
    between them; they could not displace it; neither, on the other hand,
    could it effectually part them. They were in close communion, yet not
    indissolubly united; lovers, yet never growing cured of love. By the
    time that the fifth year of Nic's visiting had arrived, on about the five-
    hundredth occasion of his presence at her tea-table, he noticed that the
    bleaching process which had begun upon his own locks was also spreading
    to hers. He told her so, and they laughed. Yet she was in good health:
    a condition of suspense, which would have half-killed a man, had been
    endured by her without complaint, and even with composure.

    One day, when these years of abeyance had numbered seven, they had
    strolled as usual as far as the waterfall, whose faint roar formed a sort
    of calling voice sufficient in the circumstances to direct their
    listlessness. Pausing there, he looked up at her face and said, 'Why
    should we not try again, Christine? We are legally at liberty to do so
    now. Nothing venture nothing have.'

    But she would not. Perhaps a little primness of idea was by this time
    ousting the native daring of Christine. 'What he has done once he can do
    twice,' she said. 'He is not dead, and if we were to marry he would say
    we had "forced his hand," as he said before, and duly reappear.'

    Some years after, when Christine was about fifty, and Nicholas
    fifty-three, a new trouble of a minor kind arrived. He found an
    inconvenience in traversing the distance between their two houses,
    particularly in damp weather, the years he had spent in trying climates
    abroad having sown the seeds of rheumatism, which made a journey
    undesirable on inclement days, even in a carriage. He told her of this
    new difficulty, as he did of everything.

    'If you could live nearer,' suggested she.

    Unluckily there was no house near. But Nicholas, though not a
    millionaire, was a man of means; he obtained a small piece of ground on
    lease at the nearest spot to her home that it could be so obtained, which
    was on the opposite brink of the Froom, this river forming the boundary
    of the Froom-Everard manor; and here he built a cottage large enough for
    his wants. This took time, and when he got into it he found its
    situation a great comfort to him. He was not more than five hundred
    yards from her now, and gained a new pleasure in feeling that all sounds
    which greeted his ears, in the day or in the night, also fell upon
    hers--the caw of a particular rook, the voice of a neighbouring
    nightingale, the whistle of a local breeze, or the purl of the fall in
    the meadows, whose rush was a material rendering of Time's ceaseless
    scour over themselves, wearing them away without uniting them.

    Christine's missing husband was taking shape as a myth among the
    surrounding residents; but he was still believed in as corporeally
    imminent by Christine herself, and also, in a milder degree, by Nicholas.
    For a curious unconsciousness of the long lapse of time since his
    revelation of himself seemed to affect the pair. There had been no
    passing events to serve as chronological milestones, and the evening on
    which she had kept supper waiting for him still loomed out with startling
    nearness in their retrospects.

    In the seventeenth pensive year of this their parallel march towards the
    common bourne, a labourer came in a hurry one day to Nicholas's house and
    brought strange tidings. The present owner of Froom-Everard--a
    non-resident--had been improving his property in sundry ways, and one of
    these was by dredging the stream which, in the course of years, had
    become choked with mud and weeds in its passage through the Sallows. The
    process necessitated a reconstruction of the waterfall. When the river
    had been pumped dry for this purpose, the skeleton of a man had been
    found jammed among the piles supporting the edge of the fall. Every
    particle of his flesh and clothing had been eaten by fishes or abraded to
    nothing by the water, but the relics of a gold watch remained, and on the
    inside of the case was engraved the name of the maker of her husband's
    watch, which she well remembered.

    Nicholas, deeply agitated, hastened down to the place and examined the
    remains attentively, afterwards going across to Christine, and breaking
    the discovery to her. She would not come to view the skeleton, which lay
    extended on the grass, not a finger or toe-bone missing, so neatly had
    the aquatic operators done their work. Conjecture was directed to the
    question how Bellston had got there; and conjecture alone could give an
    explanation.

    It was supposed that, on his way to call upon her, he had taken a short
    cut through the grounds, with which he was naturally very familiar, and
    coming to the fall under the trees had expected to find there the plank
    which, during his occupancy of the premises with Christine and her
    father, he had placed there for crossing into the meads on the other side
    instead of wading across as Nicholas had done. Before discovering its
    removal he had probably overbalanced himself, and was thus precipitated
    into the cascade, the piles beneath the descending current wedging him
    between them like the prongs of a pitchfork, and effectually preventing
    the rising of his body, over which the weeds grew. Such was the
    reasonable supposition concerning the discovery; but proof was never
    forthcoming.

    'To think,' said Nicholas, when the remains had been decently interred,
    and he was again sitting with Christine--though not beside the
    waterfall--'to think how we visited him! How we sat over him, hours and
    hours, gazing at him, bewailing our fate, when all the time he was
    ironically hissing at us from the spot, in an unknown tongue, that we
    could marry if we chose!'

    She echoed the sentiment with a sigh.

    'I have strange fancies,' she said. 'I suppose it must have been my
    husband who came back, and not some other man.'

    Nicholas felt that there was little doubt. 'Besides--the skeleton,' he
    said.

    'Yes . . . If it could not have been another person's--but no, of course
    it was he.'

    'You might have married me on the day we had fixed, and there would have
    been no impediment. You would now have been seventeen years my wife, and
    we might have had tall sons and daughters.'

    'It might have been so,' she murmured.

    'Well--is it still better late than never?'

    The question was one which had become complicated by the increasing years
    of each. Their wills were somewhat enfeebled now, their hearts sickened
    of tender enterprise by hope too long deferred. Having postponed the
    consideration of their course till a year after the interment of
    Bellston, each seemed less disposed than formerly to take it up again.

    'Is it worth while, after so many years?' she said to him. 'We are
    fairly happy as we are--perhaps happier than we should be in any other
    relation, seeing what old people we have grown. The weight is gone from
    our lives; the shadow no longer divides us: then let us be joyful
    together as we are, dearest Nic, in the days of our vanity; and

    With mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come.'

    He fell in with these views of hers to some extent. But occasionally he
    ventured to urge her to reconsider the case, though he spoke not with the
    fervour of his earlier years.

    (Autumn, 1887.)
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