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Wessex tales : strange, lively, and commonplace (Volume 1) online

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mistress remained witli open eyes. These were
ever somewhat less prompt to exclude customers
than the others : for their owners' ears the closing
hour had scarcely the cheerfulness that it pos-
sessed for the hired servants of the rest. Yet the
night being dreary the delay was not for long, and
their windows, too, blinked together one by one.



Ill FELLOW-TOWNSMEN Ul

During this time Barnet had proceeded with
decided step in a direction at right angles to the
broad main thoroughfare of the town, by a long
street leading due southward. Here, though his
family had no more to do with the flax manufacture,
his own name occasionally greeted him on gates
and wareliouses, being used allusively by small
rising tradesmen as a recommendation, in such
words as ' Smith, from Barnet and Co.' — ' Eobin-
son, late manager at Barnet's.' The sight led him
to reflect upon his father's busy life, and he ques-
tioned if it had not been far happier than his own.

The houses along the road became fewer, and
presently open ground appeared between them on
either side, the tract on the right hand rising to
a higher level till it merged in a knoll. On the
summit a row of builders' scaftbld- poles probed
the indistinct sky like spears, and at their bases
could be discerned the lower courses of a buildin.u-
lately begun. Barnet slackened his pace and stood
for a few moments without leavincj the centre of



U2 FELLOW-TOWNSMEN in

the road, apparently not mucli interested in the
sight, till suddenly his eye was caught by a post
in the fore part of the ground, bearing a white
board at the top. He went to the rails, vaulted
over, and walked in far enough to discern painted
upon the board * Chateau Eingdale.'

A dismal irony seemed to lie in the words, and
its effect was to irritate him. Downe, then, had
spoken truly. He stuck his umbrella into the sod
and seized the post with both hands, as if in-
tending to loosen and throw it down. Then, like
one bewildered by an opposition which would
exist none the less though its manifestations were
removed, he allowed his arms to sink to his side.

' Let it be,' he said to himself. ' I have declared
there shall be peace — if possible.'

Taking up his umbrella he quietly left the
enclosure, and went on his way, still keeping his
back to the town. He had advanced with more
decision since passing the new building, and soon
a hoarse murmur rose upon the gloom ; it was the



Ill FELLOW-TOWNSMEN 143

soimd of the sea. The road led to the harbour, at
a distance of a mile from the town, from wliich
the trade of the district was fed. After seeing
the obnoxious name-board Barnet had forgotten
to open his umbrella, and the rain tapped smartly
on his hat, and occasionally stroked his face as he
went on.

Though the lamps were still continued at the
roadside, they stood at wider intervals than before,
and the pavement had given place to common
road. Every time he came to a lamp an increas-
ing shine made itself visible upon his shoulders,
till at last they quite glistened with wet. The
murmur from the shore grew stronger, but it was
still some distance off when he paused before one
of the smallest of the detached houses by the
wayside, standing in its own garden, the latter
being divided from the road by a row of wooden
palings. Scrutinizing the spot to ensure that he
was not mistaken, he opened the gate and gently
knocked at the cottage door.



144 FELLOW-TOWNSMEN



III



When he had patiently waited minutes enough
to lead any man in ordinary cases to knock again,
the door was heard to open ; though it was im-
possible to see by whose hand, there being no
liglit in the passage. Barnet said at random,
' Does Miss Savile live here ? '

A youthful voice assured him that she did live
there, and by a sudden afterthought asked him to
come in. It would soon get a light, it said ; but,
the night being wet, mother had not thought it
worth while to trim the passage lamp.

' Don't trouble yourself to get a light for me/
said Barnet hastily ; ' it is not necessary at all.
Which is Miss Savile's sitting-room ? '

The young person, whose white pinafore could
just be discerned, signified a door in the side of
the passage, and Barnet went forward at the same
moment, so that no light should fall upon his face.
On entering the room he closed the door behind
him, pausing till he heard the retreating footsteps
of the child.



Ill



FELLOW-TOWNSMEN 145



He found himself in an apartment which was
simply and neatly, though not poorly furnished ;
everything, from the miniature chiffonnier to
the shining little daguerreotype which formed
the central ornament of the mantelpiece, being
in scrupulous order. The picture was en-
closed by a frame of embroidered cardboard —
evidently the work of feminine hands — and it
represented a thin-faced, elderly lieutenant in the
navy. From behind the lamp on the table a
female form now rose into view : it was that of
a young girl, and a resemblance between her and
the portrait was early discoverable. She had been
so absorbed in some occupation on the other side
of the lamp as to have barely found time to realize
her visitor's presence.

They both remained standing for a few seconds
without speaking. The face that confronted
Barnet had a beautiful outline ; the Eaffaelesque
oval of its contour was remarkable for an English
countenance, and that countenance housed in a

VOL. I L



146 FELLOW-TOWNSMEN iii

remote country -road to an unheard-of harbour.
But her features did not do justice to this splendid
beginning : Nature had recollected that she was
not in Italy; and the young lady's lineaments,
though not so inconsistent as to make her plain,
would have" been accepted rather as pleasing than
as correct. The preoccupied expression which,
like images on the retina, remained with her for a
moment after the state that caused it had ceased,
now changed into a reserved, half -proud, and
slightly indignant look, in which the blood diffused
itself quickly across her cheek, and additional
brightness broke the shade of her rather heavy
eyes.

' I know I have no business here,' he said,
answering the look. ' But I had a great wish to
see you, and inquire how you were. You can
give your hand to me, seeing how often I have
held it in past days ? '

' I would rather forget than remember all that,
Mr. Barnet,' she answered, as she coldly complied



Ill



FELLOW-TOWNSMEN 147



with tlie request. ' When I think of the circum-
stances of our last meeting, I can hardly consider
it kind of you to allude to such a thing as our
past — or indeed, to come here at all.'

' There was no harm in it surely ? I don't
* trouble you often, Lucy.'

' I have not had the honour of a visit from you
for a very long time, certainly, and I did not
expect it now,' she said, with the same stiffness in
her air. ' I hope !Mrs. Barnet is very well ? '

' Yes, yes ! ' he impatiently returned. ' At least
I suppose so — though I only speak from inference ! '

' But she is your wife, sir ? ' said the young
girl tremulously.

The unwonted tones of a man's voice in that

4

feminine chamber had startled a canary that was
roosting in its cage by the window ; the bird
awoke hastily, and fluttered against the bars. She
went and stilled it by laying her face against the
cage and murmuring a coaxing sound. It might
partly have been done to still herself.



U8 FELLOW-TOWXSME>'



III



' I didn't come to talk of Mrs. Barnet,' he pur-
sued ; ' I came to talk of you, of yourself alone ;
to inquire how you are getting on since your great
loss.' And he turned towards the portrait of her
father.

' I am getting on fairly well, thank you.'

The force of her utterance was scarcely borne
out by her look ; but Barnet courteously re-
proached himself for not having guessed a thing
so natural: and to dissipate all embarrassment,
added, as he bent over the table, ' What were
you doing when I came ? — painting flowers, and
by candlelight ? '

'Oh no,' she said, 'not painting them — only
sketchins: the outlmes. I do that at niorht to save
time — I have to get three dozen done by the end
of the month.'

Barnet looked as if he regretted it deeply.
' You will wear your poor eyes out,' he said, with
more sentiment that he had hitherto shown.
* You ought not to do it. There was a time when



Ill



FELLOW-TOWNSMEX 149



I should have said you must not. Well — I almost
wish I had never seen light with my own eyes
when I think of that ! '

' Is this a time or place for recalling such
matters ? ' she asked, with dignity. ' You used
to have a gentlemanly respect for me, and for
yourself. Don't speak any more as you have
spoken, and don't come again. I cannot think
that this visit is serious, or was closely considered
by you.'

' Considered : well, I came to see you as an old
and good friend — not to mince matters, to visit a
woman I loved. Don't be angry 1 I could not
lielp doing it, so many things brought you into my
mind. . . . This evening I fell in with an acquaint-
ance, and when I saw how happy he was with
his wife and family welcoming him home, though
with only one-tenth of my income and chances,
and thought what might have been in my case,
it fairly broke down my discretion, and off I came
here. Now I am here I feel that I am 'WTong to



150 FELLOW-TOWNSMEN III

some extent. But the feeling that I should like
to see you, and talk of those we used to know in
common, was very strong.'

* Before that can be the case a little more time
must pass,' said ]\Iiss Savile quietly ; ' a time long
enough for me to regard with some calmness what
at present I remember far too impatiently — though
it may be you almost forget it. Indeed you must
have forgotten it long before you acted as you did.'
Her voice grew stronger and more vivacious as
she added : ' But I am doing my best to forget it
too, and I know I shall succeed from the progress
I have made already !'

She had remained standing till now, when she
turned and sat down, facing half away from him.

Barnet watched her moodily. ' Yes, it is only
what I deserve,' he said. ' Ambition pricked me
on — no, it was not ambition, it was wrongheaded-
ness ! Had I but reflected. . . .' He broke out
vehemently : ' But always remember this, Lucy :
if you had written to me only one little line after



Ill FELLOW-TOWNSMEN 151

that misunderstanding, I declare I should have
come back to you. That ruined me ! ' He slowly
walked as far as the little room would allow him
to go, and remained with his eyes on the skirt-
ing.

'But, Mr. Barnet, how could I write to you?
There was no opening for my doing so.'

' Then there ought to have been/ said Barnet,
turning. ' That was my fault ! '

' Well, I don't know anything about that ; but
as there had been nothing said by me which re-
quired any explanation by letter, I did not send
one. Everything was so indefinite, and feeling
your position to be so much wealthier than mine,
I fancied I might have mistaken your meaning.
And when I heard of the other lady — a woman
of whose family even you might be proud — I
thought how foolish I had been, and said nothing.'

' Then I suppose it was destiny — accident — I
don't know what, that separated us, dear Lucy.
Anyhow you were the woman I ought to have



152 FELLOW-TOWNSMEN 1 1 1

made my wife — and I let you slip, like the foolisli
man that I was ! '

'Oh, Mr. Barnet,' she said, almost in tears,
' don't revive the subject to me ; I am the ^vrong
one to console you — think, sir, — you should not
be here — it would be so bad for me if it were
known ! '

' It would — it would, indeed,' he said hastily.
' I am not right in doing this, and I won't do it
again.'

* It is a very common folly of human nature,
you know, to think the course you did not adopt
must have been the best,' she continued, with
gentle solicitude, as she followed him to the door
of the room. * And you don't know that I should
have accepted you, even if you had asked me to
be your wife.' At this his eye met hers, and she
dropped her gaze. She knew that her voice belied
her. There was a silence till she looked up to
add, in a voice of soothing playfulness, ' My family
was so much poorer than yours, even before I lost



Ill



FELLOAV-TOWXSMEX 153



iny dear father, that — perhaps your companions
would have made it unpleasant for us on account
of my deficiencies.'

' Your disposition would soon have won them
round,' said Barnet.

She archly expostulated : ' Xow, never mind
my disposition ; try to make it up with your wife !
Those are my commands to you. And now you
are to leave me at once.'

' I will. I must make the best of it all, I
suppose,' he replied, more cheerfully than he had
as yet spoken. 'But I shall never again meet
with such a dear girl as you ! ' And he suddenly
opened the door, and left her alone. When his
glance again fell on the lamps that were sparsely
ranged along the dreary level road, his eyes were
in a state which showed straw-like motes of lifjht
radiating from each flame into the surrounding
air.

On the other side of the way Barnet observed
a man under an umbrella, walking parallel with



15-1: FELLOW-TOWNSMEN



III



himself. Presently this man left the footway,
and gTadually converged on Barnet's course. The
latter then saw that it was Charlson, a surgeon of
the town, who owed him money. Charlson was a
man not without ability ; yet he did not prosper.
Sundry circumstances stood in his way as a
medical practitioner ; he was needy ; he was
not a coddle ; he gossiped with men instead of
witli women ; he had married a stranger instead of
one of the town young ladies ; and he was given
to conversational buffoonery. Moreover, his look
was quite erroneous. Those only proper features
in the family doctor, the quiet eye, and the thin
straight passionless lips which never curl in public
either for laughter or for scorn, were not his ; he
had a full curved mouth, and a bold black eye
that made timid people nervous. His companions
were what in old times would have been called
boon companions — an expression which, though of
irreproachable root, suggests fraternization carried
to the point of unscrupulousness. All this



Ill FELLOAV-TOAVXSMEN 155

was asjaiiist him in the little town of his
adoption.

Charlson had been in difficulties, and to oljlige
him Barnet had put his name to a bill ; and, as he
had expected, was called upon to meet it when it
fell due. It had been only a matter of fifty
pounds, which Bavnet could well afford to lose,
and he bore no ill-will to the thriftless surgeon on
account of it. But Charlson had a little too much
brazen indifferentism in his composition to be
altogether a desirable acquaintance.

' I hope to be able to make that little bill-
business right with you in the course of three
weeks, Mr. Barnet,' said Charlson with hail-fellow
friendliness.

Barnet replied good-naturedly that there was
no huny.

This particular three weeks had moved on in
advance of Charlson's present with the precision
of a shadow for some considerable time.

' I've had a dream,' Charlson continued. Bar-



156 FELLOW-TOWNSMEN in

net knew from his tone that the surgeon was
cjoincf to hemn his characteristic nonsense, and did
not encourage him. ' I've had a dream/ repeated
Charlson, who required no encouragement. * I
dreamed that a gentleman, who has been very
kind to me, married a haughty lady in haste, be-
fore he had quite forgotten a nice little girl he
knew before, and that one wet evening, like the
present, as I was walking up the harbour-road, I
saw him come out of that dear little girl's present
abode.'

Barnet glanced towards the speaker. The rays
from a neighbouring lamp struck through the
drizzle under Charlson's umbrella, so as just to
illumine his face against the shade behind, and
show that his eye was turned up under the outer
corner of its lid, whence it leered with impish
jocoseness as he thrust his tongue into his cheek.

' Come,' said Barnet gravely, ' we'll have no
more of that.'

* No, no — of course not,' Charlson hastily an-



Ill FELLOW-TOWNSilEN 157

swered, seeing that liis liumour had carried liim
too for, as it had done many times before. He
was profuse in his apologies, but Barnet did not
reply. Of one thing he was certain — that scandal
was a plant of quick root, and that he was bound
to obey Lucy's injunction for Lucy's own sake.



Hi

He did so, to the letter ; and though, as the
crocus followed the snowdrop and the daffodil the
crocus in Lucy's garden, the harbour-road was a
not unpleasant place to walk in, Barnet's feet
never trod its stones, much less approached her
door. He avoided a saunter that way as he would
liave a/jided a dangerous dram, and took his air-
ings a long distance northward, among severely
square and brown ploughed fields, where no other
townsman came. Sometimes he went round by
the lower lanes of the borough, where the rope-
walks stretched in which his family formerly had
share, and looked at the rope -makers walking
backwards, overhung by apple-trees and bushes,
and intruded on by cows and calves, as if trade



Ill



FELLOW-TOAVNSMEN ir)9



had established itself there at considerable iiicoii-
venience to nature.

One morning, when the sun was so warm as to
raise a steam from the south-eastern slopes of
those flankinij; hills that looked so lovelv above
the old roofs, but made every low -chimneyed
house in the town as smoky as Tophet, Barnet
glanced from the windows of the town-council
room for lack of interest in what was proceeding
within. Several members of the corporation were
present, but there was not much business doing,
and in a few minutes Downe came leisurely across
to him, saying that he seldom saw Barnet now.

Barnet owned that he was not often present.

Downe looked at the crimson curtain which
hung down beside the panes, reflecting its hot
hues into their faces, and then out of the window.
At that moment there passed along the street a
tall commanding lady, in whom the solicitor re-
cocjnised Bamet's wife. Barnet had done the
same thing, and turned away.



160 FELLOW-TOWNSMEN in

' It will be all right some day,' said Downe,
with cheering sympathy.

' You have heard, then, of her last outbreak ? '

Downe depressed his cheerfulness to its very
reverse in a moment. ' Ko, I have not heard of
anything serious,' he said, with as long a face as
one naturally round could be turned into at short
notice. ' I only hear vague reports of such
thincjs.'

'You may think it will be all right,' said
Barnet drily. 'But I have a different opinion.
. . . No, Downe, we must look the thing m the
face. Not poppy nor mandragora — however, how
are your wife and children ? '

Downe said that they were all well, thanks ;
they were out that morning somewhere ; he was
just looking to see if they were walking that way.
Ah, there they were, just coming down the street,
and Downe pointed to the figures of two children
with a nursemaid, and a lady walking behind
them.



Ill



FELLOW-TOWN SMEX 1 G 1



* You will come out and speak to her ? ' he
asked.

' Not this morning. The fact is I don't care
to speak to anybody just now.'

* You are too sensitive, Mr. Barnet. At school
I remember you used to get as red as a rose if
anybody uttered a word that hurt your feelings.'

Barnet mused. ' Yes,' he admitted, ' there is
a grain of truth in that. It is because of that I
often try to make peace at home. Life would be
tolerable then at any rate, even if not particularly
bright.'

' I have thought more than once of proposing
a little plan to you,' said Downe with some hesi-
tation. ' I don't know whether it will meet your
views, but take it or leave it, as you choose. In
fact, it was my wife who suggested it ; that she
would be ver}' glad to call on Mrs. Barnet and get
into her confidence. She seems to think that
Mrs. Barnet is rather alone in the town, and with-
out advisers. Her impression is that your wife

VOL. I M



162 FELLOW-TOWNSMEN iii

will listen to reason. Emily has a wonderful way
of winning the hearts of people of her own sex.'

'And of the other sex too, I think. She is a
charming woman, and you were a lucky fellow to
find her.'

' Well, perhaps I was,' simpered Downe, trying
to wear an aspect of being the last man in the
world to feel pride. ' However, she will be likely
to find out what ruffles Mrs. Barnet. Perhaps it
is some misunderstanding, you know — something
that she is too proud to ask you to explain, or
some little thino; in your conduct that irritates her
because she does not fully comprehend you. The
truth is, Emily would have been more ready to
make advances if she had been quite sure of her
fitness for Mrs. Barnet's society, who has of course
been accustomed to London people of good posi-
tion, which made Emily fearful of intruding.'

Barnet expressed his warmest thanks for the
well-intentioned proposition. There was reason
in Mrs. Downe's fear — that he owned. ' But do



Ill



FELLOW-TOWNSMEN 163



let her call,' he said. ' There is no woman in
England I would so soon trust on such an errand.
I am afraid there will not be any brilliant result ;
still I shall take it as the kindest and nicest thing
if she will try it, and not be frightened at a
repulse.'

When Barnet and Downe. had parted, the
former went to the Town Savings-Bank, of which
he was a trustee, and endeavoured to forget his
troubles in the contemplation of low sums of
money, and figures in a network of red and blue
lines. He sat and ' watched the working-people
making their deposits, to which at intervals he
signed his name. Before he left in the afternoon
Downe put his head inside the door.

'Emily has seen Mrs. Barnet,' he said, in a
low voice. 'She has got Mrs. Barnet's promise
to take her for a drive down to the shore to-mor-
row, if it is fine. Good afternoon ! '

Barnet shook Downe by the hand without
speaking, and Downe went away.



IV

The next da}' was as fine as the arrangement
could possibly require. As the sun passed the
meridian and declined westward, the tall shadows
from the scaffold-poles of Barnet's rising resi-
dence streaked the ground as far as to the
middle of the highway. Barnet himself was
there inspecting the progress of the works for
the first time durinc^ several weeks. A buildin£j
in an old-fashioned town five -and -thirty years
ago did not, as in the modern fashion, rise from
the sod like a booth at a fair. The foundations
and lower courses were put in and allowed to
settle for many weeks before the superstructure
was built up, and a whole summer of drying was
hardly sufficient to do justice to the important



Ill FELLOW-TOWNSMEN 165

issues involved. Barnet stood within a window-
niche which had as yet received no frame, and
thence looked down a slope into the road. The
wheels of a chaise were heard, and then his hand-
some Xantippe, in the company of Mrs. Downe,
drove past on their way to the shore. They were
driving slowly ; there was a pleasing light in Mrs.
Downe's face, which seemed faintly to reflect it-
self upon the countenance of her companion —
that 2^olitesse du cceur which was so natural to her
having possibly beguh already to work results.
But whatever the situation, Barnet resolved not to
interfere, or do anything to hazard the glory of
the day. He might well afford to trust the issue
to another when he could never direct it but to
ill himself. His wife's clenched rein-hand in its
lemon-coloured glove, her stiff erect figure, clad in
velvet and lace, and her boldly-outlined face, passed
on, exhibiting their owner as one fixed forever above
the level of her companion — socially by her early
breeding, and materially by her higher cushion.



166 FELLOW-TOWNSMEN in

Barnet decided to allow them a proper time to
themselves, and then stroll down to the shore and
drive them home. After lingering on at the house
for another hour he started with this intention.
A few hundred yards below ' Chateau Ringdale '
stood the cottage in which the late lieutenant's
daughter had her lodejini?. Barnet had not been
SO far that way for a long time, and as he ap-
proached the forbidden ground a curious warmth
passed into him, which led him to perceive that,
unless he were careful, he might have to fight the
battle with himself about Lucy over again. A
tenth of his present excuse would, however, have
justified him in travelling by that road to-day.

He came opposite the dwelling, and turned his
eyes for a momentary glance into the little garden


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