Thomas Hardy.

The return of the native (Volume 1) online

. (page 7 of 12)
Online LibraryThomas HardyThe return of the native (Volume 1) → online text (page 7 of 12)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

ing house was that of Captain Drew and
Eustacia, which stood quite away from the
small cottages, and was the loneliest of


lonely houses on these thinly populated

He ran until he was out of breath, and
then, becoming more courageous, walked
leisurely along, singing in an old voice a
little song about a sailor-boy and a fair one,
and brip-ht ofold in store. In the middle of
this the child stopped : from a pit under
the hill ahead of him shone a light, whence
proceeded a cloud of floating dust and a
smacking noise.

Only unusual sights and sounds fright-
ened the boy. The shrivelled voice of the
heath did not alarm him, for that was
familiar. The thorn-bushes which arose in
his path from time to time were less satis-
factory, for they whistled gloomily, and had
a ghastly habit after dark of putting on the
shapes of jumping madmen, sprawling giants,
and hideous cripples. Lights were not un-
common this evening, but the nature of all
of them was different from this. Discretion
rather than terror prompted the boy to turn



back instead of passing the light, with a
view of asking Miss Eustacia Vye to accom-
pany him home.

When the boy had re-ascended to the
top of the valley he found the fire to be
still burning on the bank, though lower than
before. Beside it, instead of Eustacia's soli-
tary form, he saw two persons, the second
being a man. The boy crept along under
the bank to ascertain from the nature of the
proceedings if it would be prudent to inter-
rupt so splendid a creature as Miss Eustacia
-on his poor trivial account.

After listening under the bank for some
minutes to the talk he turned in a perplexed
and doubting manner and began to withdraw
as silently as he had come. That he did
not, upon the whole, think it advisable to
interrupt her conversation with Wildeve,
without being prepared to bear the whole
weight of her displeasure, was obvious.

Here was a Scyllseo-Charybdean position
for the poor boy. Pausing awhile when



again safe from discovery, he finally decided
to face the pit phenomenon as the lesser evil.
With a heavy sigh he retraced the slope,
and followed the path he had followed before.

The light had gone, the rising dust had
disappeared — he hoped for ever. He marched
resolutely along, and found nothing to alarm
him till, cominof within a few vards of the
sand-pit, he heard a slight noise in front,
which led him to pause. The pause was
but momentary, for the noise resolved itself
into the steady bites of two animals grazing.

' Two he'th-croppers down here,' he said
aloud. * I have never known 'em come down
so far afore.'

The animals were in the direct line of his
path, but that the child thought little of;
he had played round the fetlocks of horses
from his infancy. On coming nearer, how-
ever, the boy was somewhat surprised to find
that the little creatures did not run off, and
that each wore a clog, to prevent his going
astray ; this signified that they had been

I\I 2


broken In. He could now see the interior
of the pit, which, being In the side of the
hill, had a level entrance. In the innermost
corner the square outline of a van appeared,
with its back towards him. A light came
from the interior, and threw a moving sha-
dow upon the vertical face of gravel at the
further side of the pit into which the vehicle

The child assumed that this was the cart
of a gipsy, and his dread of those wanderers
reached but to that mild pitch which titillates
rather than pains. Only a few inches of
mudwall kept him and his family from being
gipsies themselves. He skirted the gravel-
pit at a respectful distance, ascended the
slope, and came forward upon the brow, in
order to look into the open door of the van
and see the original of the shadow.

The picture alarmed the boy. By a little
stove inside the van sat a figure red from
head to heels — the man who had been Thoma-
sin's friend. He was darning a stocking.


which was red like the rest of him. More-
over, as he darned he smoked a pipe, the
stem and bowl of which were red also.

At this moment one of the heath-croppers
feeding in the outer shadows was audibly
shakinof off the cloof attached to its foot.
Aroused by the sound, the reddleman laid
down his stocking, lit a lantern which hung
beside him, and came out from the van. In
sticking up the candle he lifted the lantern
to his face, and the light shone into the
whites of his eyes and upon his ivory teeth,
which, in contrast with the red surrounding,
lent him a startling aspect enough to the
gaze of a juvenile. The boy knew too well
for his peace of mind upon whose lair he
had lighted. Uglier persons than gipsies
were known to cross Egdon at times, and
a reddleman was one of them.

' How I wish 'twas only a gipsy!' he

The man was by this time coming back
from the horses. In his fear of beine seen


the boy rendered detection certain by ner-
vous motion. The heather and peat stra-
tum overhung the brow of the pit in mats,
hiding the actual verge. The boy had
stepped beyond the soHd ground; the hea-
ther now gave way, and down he rolled over
the scarp of grey sand to the very foot of
the man.

The red man opened the lantern and
turned it upon the figure of the prostrate

' Who be ye ? ' he said.

' Johnny Nunsuch, master.'

' What were you doing up there ? '

* I don't know.'

* Watching me, I suppose ? '

* Yes, master.'

* What did you watch me for?'

' Because I was coming home from
Miss Vye's bonfire.'

* Beest hurt?'
' No.'

* Why, yes you be : your hand is bleed-


ing. Come under my tilt and let me tie

it up.'

' Please let me look for my sixpence.'
' How did you come by that?'

* Miss Vye gied it to me for keeping
up her bonfire.'

The sixpence was found, and the man
went to the van, the boy behind, almost
holding his breath.

The man took a piece of rag from a
satchel containing sewing materials, tore off
a strip, which, like everything else, was
tinged red, and proceeded to bind up the

* My eyes have got foggy-like — please
may I sit down, master?' said the boy.

* To be sure, poor chap. 'Tis enough to
make you feel fainty. Sit on that bundle.'

The man finished tying up the gash,
and the boy said, ' I think I'll go home
now, master.'

' You are rather afraid of me. Do you
know what I be ? '


The child surveyed his vermihon figure
up and down with much misgiving, and
finally said, ' Yes.'

'Well, what?'

' The Reddleman!' he faltered.

' Yes, that's what I be. Though there's
more than one. You little children think
there's only one cuckoo, one fox, one
giant, one devil, and one reddleman, when
there's lots of us all.'

' Is there? You won't carry me off in
your bags, will ye, master? 'Tis said that
the reddleman will sometimes.'

' Nonsense. All that reddlemen do is
sell reddle. You see all these bags at the
back of my cart ? They are not full of
little boys — only full of red stuff.'

' Was you born a reddleman ? '

' No, I took to it. I should be as white
as you if I were to give up the trade — that
is, I should be white in time — perhaps six
months : not at first, because 'tis grow'd into
my skin and won't wash out. Now, you'll


never be afraid of a reddleman again, will
ye ?'

' No, never. Willy Orchard said he
seed a red ghost here t'other day — perhaps
that was you ? '

' I was here t'other day.'

* Were you making that dusty light I saw
by now ? '

* O yes : I was beating out some bags.
And have you had a good bonfire up there ?
I saw the light. Why did Miss Vye want a
bonfire so bad that she should give you six-
pence to keep it up ? '

' I don't know. I was tired, but she
made me bide and keep up the fire just the
same, while she kept going up across Black-
barrow way.'

' And how long did that last ?'
' Until a hopfrog jumped into the pond.'
The reddleman suddenly ceased to talk
idly. 'A hopfrog?' he enquired. 'Hop-
frogs don't jump into ponds this time of


' They do, for I heard one.'

* Certain-sure?'

' Yes. She told me afore that I should
hear'm ; and so I did. They say she's
clever and deep, and perhaps she charmed
'em to come.'

* And what then?'

' Then I came down here, and I was
afraid, and I went back ; but I didn't like to
speak to her, because of the gentleman, and
I came on here again.'

* A gentleman — ah ! What did she say
to him, my man ? '

' Told him she supposed he had not
married the other woman because he liked
his old sweetheart best ; and things like

' What did the gentleman say to her, my
sonny ? '

' He only said he did like her best, and
how he was coming to see her again under
Blackbarrow o' nights.'

' Ha ! ' cried the reddleman, slapping his


hand against the side of his van so that the
whole fabric shook under the blow. ' That's
the secret o't ! '

The little boy jumped clean from the

' My man, don't you be afraid,' said the
dealer in red, suddenly becoming gentle. * I
forgot you were here. That's only a curious
way reddlemen have of going mad for a
moment ; but they don't hurt anybody. And
what did the lady say then ? '

* I can't mind. Please, Master Reddle-
man, may I go home-along now ? '

' Ay, to be sure you may. I'll go a bit
of ways with you.'

He conducted the boy out of the gravel-
pit and into the path leading to his mother's
cottage. When the little figure had vanished
in the darkness the reddleman returned, re-
sumed his seat by the fire, and proceeded to
darn again.




Reddlemen of the old school are now but
seldom seen. Since the introduction of rail-
ways Wessex farmers have managed to do
without these somewhat spectral visitants,
and the bright pigment so largely used by
shepherds in preparing sheep for the fair Is
obtained by other routes. Even those who
yet survive are losing the poetry of existence
which characterised them when the pursuit
of the trade meant periodical journeys to the
pit whence the material was dug, a regular
camping out from month to month, except In
the depth of winter, a peregrination among
farms which could be counted by the hun-
dred, and In spite of this Arab existence the


preservation of that respectability which is
ensured by the never-faiHng production of a
well-Hned purse.

Reddle spreads Its lively hues over every-
thing it lights on, and stamps unmistakably,
as with the mark of Cain, any person who
has handled it half-an-hour.

A child's first sight of a reddleman was
an epoch in his life. That blood-coloured
figure was a sublimation of all the horrid
dreams which had afflicted the juvenile spirit
since imagination began. ' The reddleman
is coming for you ! ' had been the formulated
threat of Wessex mothers for many genera-
tions. He was successfully supplanted for a
while, at the beginning of the present cen-
tury, by Buonaparte ; but as process of time
rendered the latter personage stale and inef-
fective the older phrase resumed its early
prominence. And now the reddleman has in
his turn followed Buonaparte to the land of
worn-out bogeys, and his place is filled by
modern inventions.


The reddleman lived like a gipsy ; but
gipsies he scorned. He was about as thriving
as travelling basket and mat makers ; but he
had nothing to do with them. He was more
decently born and brought up than the cattle-
drovers who passed and repassed him in his
wanderings ; but they merely nodded to him.
His stock was more valuable than that of
pedlars ; but they did not think so, and passed
his cart with eyes straight ahead. He was
such an unnatural colour to look at that the
men of round-abouts and wax-work shows
seemed gentlemen beside him ; but he con-
sidered them low company, and remained
aloof. Among all these squatters and folks
of the road the reddleman continually found
himself; yet he was not of them. His occu-
pation tended to isolate him, and isolated he
was mostly seen to be.

It was sometimes suggested that reddle-
men were criminals for whose misdeeds other
men had wrongfully suffered : that in escap-
ing the law they had not escaped their own


consciences, and had taken to the trade as
a lifelong penance. Else why should they
have chosen it ? In the present case such
a question would have been particularly ap-
posite. The reddleman who had entered
Eedon that afternoon was an instance of the
pleasing being wasted to form the ground-
work of the singular, when an ugly founda-
tion would have done just as well for that
purpose. The one point that was forbidding
about this reddleman was his colour. Freed
from that he would have been as agreeable
a specimen of rustic manhood as one would
often see. A keen observer might have been
inclined to think — which was, indeed, partly
the truth — that he had relinquished his pro-
per station in life for want of interest in it.
Moreover, after looking at him one would
have hazarded the o^uess that ofood- nature,
and an acuteness as extreme as it could be
without verging on craft, formed the frame-
work of his character.

While he darned the stockinet his face


became rigid with thought. Softer expres-
sions followed this, and then again recurred
the tender sadness which had sat upon him
during his drive along the highway that
afternoon. Presently his needle stopped.
He laid down the stocking, arose from his
seat, and took a leathern pouch from a hook
in the corner of the van. This contained
among other articles a brown-paper packet,
which, to judge from the hinge-like character
of its worn folds, seemed to have been care-
fully opened and closed a good many times.
He sat down on the three-leo^qred milking-
stool that formed the only seat in the van,
and, examining his packet by the light of a
candle, took thence an old letter and spread
it open. The writing had originally been
traced on white paper, but the letter had now
assumed a pale red tinge from the accident

1 Jl ^

of its situation ; and the black strokes of
writing thereon looked like the twigs of a
winter hedge against a vermilion sunset.
The letter bore a date some two years pre-


vi6us to that time, and was signed ' Thomasin
Yeobrieht.' It ran as follows : —

Dear Diggory Venn, — The question you put when
you overtook me commg home from Pond- close gave
me such a surprise that I am afraid I did not make you
exactly understand what I meant. Of course, if my aunt
had not met me I could have explained all then at once,
but as it was there was no chance. I have been quite
uneasy since, as you know I do not w-ish to pain you, yet
I fear I shall be doing so now in contradicting what I
seemed to say then. I cannot, Diggory, marry you, or
think of letting you call me your sweetheart. I could
not, indeed, Diggory. I hope you will not much mind my
saying this, and feel it a great pain. It makes me very
sad when I think it may, for I like you very much, and I
always put you next to my cousin Clym in my mind.
There are so many reasons why we cannot be married
that I can hardly name them all in a letter. I did not in
the least expect that you were going to speak on such a
thing when you followed me, because I had never thought
of you in the sense of a lover at all. You must not becall
me for laughing when you spoke ; you mistook when you
thought I laughed at you as a foolish man. I laughed
because the idea was so odd, and not at you at all. ^he
great reason with my own personal self for not letting
you court me is, that I do not feel the things a woman
ought to feel who consents to w-alk with you with the
meaning of being your wife. It is not as you think, that
I have another in my mind, for I do not encourage any-


body, and never have in my life. Another reason is my
aunt. She would not, I know, agree to it, even if I
wished to have you. She likes you very well, but she
will want me to look a little higher than a small dairy-
farmer, and marry a professional man. I hope you will not
set your heart against me for writing plainly, but I felt
you might try to see me again, and it is better that we
should not meet. I shall always think of you as a good
man, and be anxious for your well-doing. I send this
by Jane Orchard's little maid.

And remain, Diggory,
Your faithful friend,

Thomasin Yeobright.
To Mr. Venn, Dairyfarmer.

Since the arrival of that letter, on a
certain autumn morning long ago, the red-
dleman and Thomasin had not met till to-
day. During the interval he had shifted
his position even further from hers than it
had originally been, by adopting the reddle
trade ; though he was really in very good
circumstances still. Indeed, seeing that his
expenditure was only one-fourth of his
income, he might have been called a
prosperous man.

Rejected suitors take to roaming as


naturally as unhived bees ; and the business
to which he had cynically devoted himself
was In many ways congenial to Venn. But
his wanderings, by mere stress of old
emotion, had frequently taken an Egdon
direction, though he never Intruded upon
her who attracted him thither. To be in
Thomasln's heath, and near her, yet unseen,
was the one ewe-lamb of pleasure left to

Then came the incident of that day, and
the reddleman, still loving her well, was
excited by this accidental service to her at
a critical juncture to vow an active devotion
to her cause, instead of, as hitherto, sighing
and holding aloof. After what had hap-
pened it was impossible that he should not
doubt the honesty of Wildeve's intentions.
But her hope was apparently centered upon
him ; and dismissing his regrets Venn de-
termined to aid her to be happy In her own
chosen way. That this way was, of all
others, the most distressing to himself, was

N 2


awkward enough ; but the reddleman's love
was generous.

His first active step in watching over
Thomasin's interests was taken about seven
o'clock the next evening, and w^as dictated
by the news which he had learnt from the
sad bov. That Eustacia was somehow the
cause of Wildeve's carelessness in relation
to the marriaofe had at once been Venn's
conclusion on hearing of the secret meeting
between them. It did not occur to his mind
that Eustacia's love-siofnal to Wildeve was
the tender effect upon the deserted beauty
of the intelligence which her grandfather had
broucrht home. His instinct was to reofard

o o

her as a conspirator against rather than as an
antecedent obstacle to Thomasin's happiness.
During the day he had been exceedingly
anxious to learn the condition of Thomasin ;
but he did not venture to intrude upon a
household to which he was a stranger, par-
ticularly at such an unpleasant moment as
this. He had occupied his time in moving


with his ponies and load to a new point in
the heath, eastward of his previous station ;
and here he selected a nook w^ith a careful
eye to shelter from wind and rain, which
seemed to mean that his stay there was to
be a comparatively extended one. After
this he returned on foot some part of the
way that he had come ; and, it being now
dark, he diverged to the left till he stood
behind a holly-bush on the edge of a pit
not twenty yards from Blackbarrow.

He watched for a meeting there, but he
watched in vain. Nobody except himself
came near the spot that night.

But the loss of his labour produced little
effect upon the reddleman. He had stood in
the shoes of Tantalus, and seemed to look
upon a certain mass of disappointment as the
natural preface to all realisations, without
which preface they would give cause for

The same hour the next evening found
him again at the same place ; but Eustacia


and Wildeve, the expected trysters. did not

He pursued precisely the same course yet
four nights longer, and without success. But
on the next, being the day -week of their pre-
vious meeting, he saw a female shape floating
along the ridge and the outline of a young
man ascending from the valley. They met
in the little ditch encircling the barrow — the
original excavation from which it had been
thrown up by the ancient British people.

The reddleman, stung with suspicion of
wrong to Thomasin, was aroused to strategy
in a moment. He instantly left the bush
and crept forward on his hands and knees.
When he had got as close as he might safely
venture without discovery he found that,
owing to a cross-wind, the conversation of
the trysting pair could not be overheard.

Near him, as in divers places about the
heath, were areas strewn with lar^e turves,
which lay edgewise and upside down await-
ing removal by Timothy Fairway, previous


to the winter weather. He took two of
these as he lay, and dragged them over him
till one covered his head and shoulders, the
other his back and legs. The reddleman
would now have been quite invisible, even
by daylight ; the turves, standing upon him
with the heather upwards, looked precisely
as if they were growing. He crept along
again, and the turves upon his back crept
with him. Had he approached without any
covering the chances are that he would not
have been perceived in the dusk ; approach-
ing thus, it w^as as though he burrowed un-
derground. In this manner he came quite
close to where the two were standing.

' Wish to consult me on the matter ? '
reached his ears in the rich, impetuous ac-
cents of Eustacia Vye. ' Consult me ? It
is an indignity to me to talk so : I won't
bear it any longer.' She began w^eeping.
' I have loved you, and have shown you that
I loved you, much to my regret ; and yet
you can come and say in that frigid way


that you wish to consult with me whether
It would not be better to marry Thomasin.
Better — of course it would be. Marry her :
she is nearer to your own position in life
than I am!'

* Yes, yes ; that's very well,' said Wlldeve
peremptorily. ' But we must look at things
as they are. Whatever blame may attach to
me for having brought it about, Thomasin's
position is at present much worse than yours.
I simply tell you that I am In a strait.'

. * But you shall not tell me! You must
see that it is only harassing me. Damon,
you have not acted well ; you have sunk
In my opinion. You have not valued my
courtesy — the courtesy of a lady In loving
you — who used to think of far more ambi-
tious things. But It was Thomasin's fault.
She won you away from me, and she de-
serves to suffer for It. Where Is she stay-
ing now ? Not that I care, nor where I
am myself. Ah, if I were dead and gone
how glad she would be! W^here is she, I ask?*


* Thomasin Is now staying at her aunt's,
shut up in a bedroom, and keeping out of
everybody's sight,' he said indifferently.

' I don't think you care much about her
even now,' said Eustacia with sudden joy-
ousness ; ' for if you did you wouldn't talk
so coolly about her. Do you talk so coolly to
her about me ? Ah, I expect you do ! Wh}'
did you originally go away from me ? I don't
think I can ever forgive you, except on one
condition, that whenever you desert me you
come back again, sorry that you served me

' I never wish to desert you.'

' I do not thank you for that. I should
hate it to be all smooth. Indeed, I think
I like you to desert me a little once now and
then. Love is the dismallest thing where
the lover is quite honest. Oh, it is a shame
to say so ; but it is true.' She indulged in a
litde laugh. ' My low spirits begin at the
very idea. Don't you offer me tame love, or
away you go.'


* I wish Tamsie were not such a con-
foundedly good little woman,' said Wildeve,
' so that I could be faithful to you without
injuring a worthy person. It is I who am
the sinner after all ; I am not worth the little
finger of either of you.'

* But you must not sacrifice yourself to
her from any sense of justice,' replied Eus-
stacia quickly. ' If you do not love her it is
the most merciful thing in the long run to

1 2 3 4 5 7 9 10 11 12

Online LibraryThomas HardyThe return of the native (Volume 1) → online text (page 7 of 12)