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

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liarbour-road with the manner of a man who must
do something to bring himself to life. He passed
Lucy Savile's old house, his own new one, and


came in view of the church. Now he gave a
perceptible start, and his mechanical condition
went away. Before the church-gate were a couple
of carriages, and Barnet then could perceive that
the marriage between Downe and Lucy was at
that moment being solemnized within. A feeling
of sudden, proud self-confidence, an indocile wish
to walk unmoved in spite of grim environments,
plainly possessed him, and when he reached the
wicket-gate he turned in without apparent effort.
Pacing up the paved footway, he entered the
church and stood for a while in the nave passage.
A group of people was standing round the vestry
door ; Barnet advanced through these and stepped
into the vestry.

There they were, busily signing their names.
Seeing Downe about to look round, Barnet averted
his somewhat disturbed face for a second or two ;
when he turned again front to front he was calm
and quite smiling : it was a creditable triumph
over himself, and deserved to be remembered in



his native town. He greeted Downe heartily, offer-
hvj: his conf'ratulations.

It seemed as if Barnet expected a half-guilty
look upon Lucy's face ; but no, save the natural
flush and flurry engendered by the service just
performed, there was nothing whatever in her
bearim? which showed a disturbed mind : her
gray-brown eyes carried in them now as at otlier
times the well-known expression of common-
sensed rectitude which never went so far as to
touch on hardness. She shook hands with him,
and Downe said warmly, ' I wish you coidd have
come sooner : I called on purpose to ask you.
You'll drive back with us now ? '

' No, no,' said Barnet ; ' I am not at all pre-
pared ; but I thought I would look in upon you
for a moment, even though I had not time to go
home and dress. I'll stand back and see you pass
out, and observe the effect of the spectacle upon
myself as one of the public'

Then Lucy and her husband laughed, and


Barnet lauglied and retired ; and the quiet little
party went gliding down tlie nave and towards
the porch, Lucy's new silk dress sweeping with a
smart rustle round the base-mouldings of the
ancient font, and Downe's little daughters follow-
ing in a state of round-eyed interest in their posi-
tion, and that of Lucy, their teacher and friend.

So Downe was comforted after his Emily's death,
which had taken place twelve months, tW'O weeks,
and three days before that time.

When the two flys had driven off and the
spectators had vanished, Barnet follow^ed to the
door, and went out into the sun. He took no
more trouble to preserve a spruce exterior ; his
step w^as unequal, hesitating, almost convulsive ;
and the slicjht chancres of colour which went on in
his face seemed refracted from some inward flame.
In the churchyard he became pale as a summer
cloud, and finding it not easy to proceed he sat
down on one of the tombstones and supported his
head with his hand.


Hard hy was a sexton filling up a grave wliich
he had not found time to finish on the previous
evening. Observing liarnet, he went up to him,
and recognizing him, said, ' Shall I help you
home, sir ? '

' Oh no, thank you,' said Barnet, rousing him-
self and standing up. The sexton returned to his
grave, followed by Barnet, who, after watching
him awhile, stepped into the grave, now nearly
filled, and helped to tread in the earth.

The sexton apparently thought his conduct a
little singular, but he made no observation, and
when the grave was full, Barnet suddenly stopped,
looked far away, and with a decided step proceeded
to the iijate and vanished. The sexton rested on
his shovel and looked after him for a few moments,
and then began banking up the mound.

In those short minutes of treading in the dead
man Barnet had formed a design, but what it was
the inhabitants of that town did not for some
lon^r time imagine. He went home, wrote several


letters of l)iisiness, called on liis lawyer, an old
man of the same place wlio had been the legal
adviser of Barnet's father before him, and during
the evening overhauled a large quantity of letters
and other documents in his possession. By eleven
o'clock the heap of papers in and before Barnet's
grate had reached formidable dimensions, and he
began to burn them. This, owing to their quan-
tity, it was not so easy to do as he had expected,
and he sat long into the night to complete the

The next morning Barnet departed for London,
leavino' a note for Downe to inform him of Mrs.
Barnet's sudden death, and that he was gone to
bury her; but when a thrice -sufficient time for
tliat purpose had elapsed, he was not seen again
in his accustomed walks, or in his new house, or
in his old one. He was gone for good, nobody
knew whither. It was soon discovered that he
had empowered his lawyer to dispose of all his
property, real and personal, in the borough, and



pay in the proceeds to the account of an unknown
person at one of the large London banks. The
person was by some supposed to l)e himself under
an assumed name ; but few, if any, liad certain
knowledcre of that fact.

The elegant new residence was sold with the
rest of his possessions ; and its purchaser was no
other than Downe, now a thriving man in the
borough, and one whose growing family and new
wife required more roomy accommodation than
was aftbrded by the little house up the narrow
side street. Barnet's old habitation was bought by
the trustees of the Congregational Baptist body in
that town, who pulled down the time-honoured
dwelling and built a new^ chapel on its site. By
the time the last hour of that, to Barnet, eventful
year had chimed, every vestige of him had dis-
appeared from the precincts of his native place,
and the name became extinct in the borough of
Port-Bredy, after having been a living force therein
for more than two hundred years.


Twenty- ONE years and six months do not pass
without setting a mark even upon durable stone
and triple brass : upon humanity such a period
works nothing less than transformation. In Bar-
net's old birthplace vivacious young children with
bones like india-rubber had grown up to be stable
men and women, men and women had dried in
the skin, stiffened, withered, and sunk into de-
crepitude ; while selections from every class had
been consigned to the outlying cemetery. Of
inorsfanic differences the sfreatest was that a rail-
way had invaded the town, tying it on to a main
line at a junction a dozen miles off. Barnet's
house on the harbour- road, once so insistently
new, had acquired a respectable mellowness, with



ivy, Virginia creepers, lichens, damp patches, and
even constitutional infirmities of its own like
its elder fellows. Its architecture, once so very
improved and modern, had already become stale
in style, Avithout having reached the dignity of
being old-fashioned. Trees about the harbour-
road had increased in circumference or dis-
appeared under the saw ; while the church had
had such a tremendous practical joke played upon
it by some facetious restorer or otlier as to be
scarce recognizable by its dearest old friends.

During this long interval George Barnet had
never once been seen or heard of in the town of
his fathers.

It was the evening of a market-day, and some
half-dozen middle-aged farmers and dairymen
were loum^inc^ round the bar of the Black-Bull
Hotel, occasionally dropping a remark to each
other, and less frequently to the two barmaids
who stood within the pewter-topped counter in
a perfunctory attitude of attention, these latter



sighing and making a private observation to one
another at odd intervals, on more interesting ex-
periences than the present.

'Days get shorter/ said one of the dairymen,
as he looked towards the street, and noticed that
the lamplighter was passing by.

The farmers merely acknowledged by their
countenances the propriety of this remark, and
finding that nobody else spoke, one of the bar-
maids said ' yes,' in a tone of painful duty.

' Come fair-day we shall have to light up before
we start for home-along.'

* That's true,' his neighbour conceded, with a
gaze of blankness.

'And after that we shan't see much further
difference all's winter.'

The rest were not unwilling to go even so far
as this.

The barmaid sighed again, and raised one of
her hands from the counter on whicli tliey rested
to scratch the smallest surface of her face witli



the smallest of her fiiifrers. She looked towards
the door, aud presently remarked, ' I think I hear
the 'Inis cominLj in from station.'

The eyes of the dairymen and farmers turned
to the glass door dividing the hall from the porch,
and in a minute or two the omnibus drew up out-
side. Tlien there was a lumbermg down of lug-
gage, and then a man came into the hall, followed
by a porter with a portmanteau on his poll, which
he deposited on a bench.

The stranger was an elderly person, with curly
ashen-white hair, a deeply - creviced outer corner
to each eyelid, and a countenance baked Ijy in-
numerable suns to the colour of terra -cotta, its
hue and that of his hair contrasting- like heat and
cold respectively. He walked meditatively and
gently, like one who was fearful of disturbing his
own mental equililjrium. But whatever lay at
the bottom of his breast had evidently made him
so accustomed to its situation there that it caused
him little practical inconvenience.


He paused in silence while, with his dubions
e3'es fixed on the barmaids, he seemed to consider
himself. In a moment or two he addressed them,
and asked to be accommodated for the night. As
he waited he looked curiously round the hall, but
said notliing. As soon as invited he disappeared
up the staircase, preceded by a chambermaid and
candle, and followed by a lad with his trunk.
Not a soul had recognized him.

A quarter of an hour later, when the farmers
and dairymen had driven off to their homesteads
in the country, he came downstairs, took a biscuit
and one L^lass of wine, and walked out into the
town, where the radiance from the shop-windows
had grown so in volume of late years as to flood
with cheerfulness every standing cart, barrow,
stall, and idler that occupied the wayside, whether
shabby or genteel. His chief interest at present
seemed to lie in the names painted over the
shop-fronts and on doorways, as far as they were
visible ; these now differed to an ominous extent



from what they had been one -and -twenty years

The traveller passed on till he came to the
bookseller's, where he looked in through the glass
door. A fresh -faced young man was standing
behind the counter, otherwise the shop was
empty. The gray-haired observer entered, asked
for some periodical by way of paying for his
standing, and with his elbow on the counter
began to turn over the pages he had bought,
thouj^di that he read nothincc was obvious.

At length he said, ' Is old .Mr. Watkins still
alive ? ' in a voice whicli had a curious youthful
cadence in it even now.

' My father is dead, sir,' said the young

' Ah, I am sorry to hear it,' said the stranger.
' But it is so many years since I last visited this
town that I could hardly expect it should be
otherwise.' After a short silence he continued —
' And is the firm of Barnet, Browse, and Company


still in existence ? — they used to be large flax-
merchants and twine-spinners here ? '

' The firm is still going on, sir, Init they have
dropped the name of Barnet. I believe that was
a sort of fancy name — at least, I never knew of
any living Barnet. 'Tis now Browse and Co/

'And does Andrew Jones still keep on as
architect ? '

' He's dead, sir.'

* And the vicar of St. Mary's— Mr. Melrose ? '
' He's been dead a great many years.'

* Dear me ! ' He paused yet longer, and cleared
his voice. * Is Mr. Downe, the solicitor, still in
practice ? '

' Xo, sir, he's dead. He died about seven years

Here it was a longer silence still ; and an atten-
tive observer would have noticed that the paper
in the stranger's hand increased its imperceptible
tremor to a visible shake. The gray-haired gentle-
man noticed it himself, and rested the paper on


the counter. ' Is Mrs. Dowiie still alive ? ' he
asked, closing his lips firmly as soon as the words
were out of his mouth, and dropping his eyes.

' Yes, sir, she's alive and Avell. She's living at
the old place.'

'In East Street?'

* Oh no ; at Chateau raiigdale. I believe it
has been in the family for some generations.'

' She lives with her children, perhaps V

' No ; she has no children of her own. There
were some Miss Downes ; I think they were Mr.
Downe's daughters by a former wife ; but they are
married and living in other parts of tlie town.
Mrs. Downe lives alone.'

' Quite alone ?'

' Yes, sir ; quite alone.'

The newly-arrived gentleman went back to the
hotel and dined ; after which he made some change
in his dress, shaved back his beard to the fashion
that had prevailed twenty years earlier, Avhen he
was young and interesting, and once more emerg-


ing, bent liis steps in the direction of the harbour-
road. Just before getting to the point wliere the
pavement ceased and the houses isolated them-
selves, he overtook a shambling, stooping, unshaven
man, who at first sight appeared like a professional
tramp, his shoulders having a perceptible greasiness
as they passed under the gaslight. Each pedestrian
momentarily turned and regarded the other, and
the tramp-like gentleman started back.

'Good— why— is that Mr. Barnet ? 'Tis lh\
Barnet, surely ! '

'Yes ; and you are Charlson?'

'Yes — ah — you notice my appearance. The
Fates have rather ill-used me. By the bye, that
fifty pounds. I never paid it, did I ? . . . But I
was not ungrateful ! ' Here the stooping man laid
one hand emphatically in the palm of the other. I
gave you a chance, Mr. George Barnet, which many
men would have thouoht full value received — the
chance to marry your Lucy. As far as the world was
concerned, your wife was a drowned woman, hey V



'Heaven forbid all tliat, Charlson!*

'Well, well, 'twas a wrong way of showing
gratitude, I suppose. And now a drop of some-
thing to drink for old acquaintance sake ! And
Mr. Barnet, she's again free — there's a chance
now if you care for it — ha, ha I' And the speaker
pushed his tongue into his hollow cheek and
slanted his eye in the old fashion.

' I know all,' said Barnet quickly ; and slipping
a small present into the hands of the needy,
saddening man, he stepped ahead and was soon
in the outskirts of the town.

He reached the harljour-road, and paused before
the entrance to a well-known house. It was so
highly bosomed in trees and shrubs planted since
the erection of the building that one would scarcely
have recognized the spot as that which had been
a mere neglected slope till chosen as a site for a
dwelling. He opened the swing -gate, closed it
noiselessly, and gently moved into the semicircular
drive, which remained exactly as it had been



marked out by Barnet on the morning when Lucy
Savile ran in to tliank him for procuring her the
post of governess to Downe's children. But the
growth of trees and bushes which revealed itself
at every step was beyond all expectation ; sun-
proof and moon-proof bowers vaulted the walks,
and the walls of the house were uniformly bearded
with creeping plants as high as the first-floor

After lingering for a few minutes in the dusk
of the bending boughs, the visitor rang the door-
bell, and on the servant appearing, he announced
himself as ' an old friend of Mrs. Downe's.'

The hall was lighted, but not brightly, the gas
being turned low, as if visitors were rare. There
was a stacjnation in the dwellinL*" : it seemed to
be waiting. Could it really be waiting for him ?
The partitions which had been probed by Barnet's
walking-stick when the mortar was green, were
now quite brown with the antiquity of their
varnish, and the ornamental woodwork of the


staircase, which had glistened witli a pale yellow
newness when first erected, was now of a rich
wine -colour. During tlie servant's absence the
following colloquy could be dimly heard tlnough
the nearly closed door of the drawing-room.
' He didn't mxe his name ?'

* He only said " an old friend," ma'am.'

* What kind of gentleman is he V

' A staidish gentleman, with gray hair.'
The voice of the second speaker seemed to
affect the listener greatly. After a pause, the
lady said, ' Very well, I will see him.'

And the strancjer was shown in face to face
with the Lucy who had once been Lucy Savile.
The round cheek of that formerly young lady had,
of course, alarminoiv flattened its curve in her
modern representative ; a pervasive grayness over-
spread her once dark brown hair, like morning
rime on heather. The parting down the middle
was wide and jagged ; once it had been a thin
white line, a narrow crevice between two high



banks of shade. ]^)iit there was still enough left
to form a handsome knob behind, and some curls
beneath inwrought with a few hairs like silver
wires were very becoming. In her eyes the only
modification was that their originally mild recti-
tude of expression had become a little more
stringent than heretofore. Yet she was still
girlish — a girl who Imd been gratuitously weighted
by destiny with a burden of five-and-forty years
instead of her proper twenty.

' Lucy, don't you know me ?' he said, when the
servant had closed the door.

'I knew you the instant I saw you!' she re-
turned cheerfully. 'I don't know why, but I
always thought you would come back to your
old town ai^ain.'

She gave him her hand, and then they sat
down. ' They said you were dead,' continued
Lucy, ' but I never thought so. We should have
heard of it for certain if you had been.'

' It is a very long time since we met.'


* Yes ; what you iiuist liave seen, ^Mr. ]>ariiet,
ill all these roving years, in comparison with what
I have seen in this quiet place ! ' Her face grew
more serious. ' You know my husband has been
dead a long time ? I am a lonely old woman
now, considering what I have been ; though Mr.
Downe's daughters — all married — manage to keep
me pretty cheerful.'

' And I am a lonely old man, and have been
any time these twenty years.'

' But where have you kept yourself ? And
why did you go off so mysteriously ?'

' Well, Lucy, I have kept myself a little in
America, and a little in Australia, a little in
India, a little at the Cape, and so on ; I have
not stayed in any place for a long time, as it
seems to me, and yet more than twenty years
have flown. But when people get to my age two
years go like one ! — Your second question, why
did I go away so mysteriously, is surely not
necessary. You guessed why, didn't you ?'


* Xo, I never once guessed,' she said simply ;
' nor did Charles, nor did anybody, as far as I

* Well, indeed ! Now think it over again, and
then look at me, and say if you can't guess V

' She looked him in the face with an inquiring
smile. ' Surely not because of me ? ' she said,
pausing at the commencement of sur^^rise.

Barnet nodded, and smiled back again ; but his
smile was sadder than hers.

' Because I married Charles ? ' she asked.

' Yes ; solely because you married him on the
day I was free to ask you to marry me. My wife
died four -and -twenty hours before you went to
church with Downe. The fixing of my journey
at that particular moment was because of her
funeral ; but once away, I knew I should have no
inducement to come back, and took my steps

Her face assumed an aspect of gentle reflection,
and she looked up and down his form with great


interest in Iilt eyes. ' 1 never thought of it ! ' she
said. ' I knew, of course, that you had once im-
plied some warmtli of feeling towards me, but
I concluded that it passed off. And I have
always been under the impression that your wife
was alive at the time of my marriage. Was it
not stupid of me ! — But you will have some tea
or something ? I have never dined late, you
know, since my Imsljand's death. I have got into
tlie way of making a regular meal of tea. You
will have some tea with me, will you not V

The travelled man assented quite readily, and
tea was brought in. They sat and chatted over
the meal, regardless of the flying hour. ' Well,
well!' said Barnet presently, as for the first time
he leisurely surveyed the room ; ' how like it all
is, and yet how different ! Just where your piano
stands was a board on a couple of trestles, bearing
the patterns of wall-papers, when I was last here.
I was choosing them — standing in this way, as it
mii'ht be. Then mv servant came in at the door,


and handed me a note, so. It was from Downe,
and announced that you were just going to be
married to him. I chose no more wall-papers —
tore up all those I had selected, and left the
house. I never entered it acrain till now.'

' Ah, at last I understand it all,' she murmured.

They had both risen and gone to the fireplace.
The mantel came almost on a level with her
shoulder, which gently rested against it, and
Barnet laid his hand upon the shelf close beside
her shoulder. ' Lucy,' he said, ' better late than
never. Will you marry me now ?'

She started back, and the surprise which was
so obvious in her wrought even greater surprise
in him that it should be so. It was difficult to
believe that she had been quite blind to the
situation, and yet all reason and common sense
went to prove that she was not acting.

' You take me quite unawares by such a ques-
tion ! ' she said, with a feverish laugh of uneasi-
ness. It was the first time she had shown any



embarrassment at all. ' Why,' she added, ' I
couldn't marry you for the world.'

' Not after all this ! Why not ? '

' It is — I would — I really think I may say it —
I would upon the w^hole rather marry you, ]\Ir.
Barnet, than any other man I have ever met, if I
ever dreamed of marriage again. But 1 don't
dream of it — it is quite out of my thoughts ; I
have not the least intention of marrying again.'

' But — or. my account — couldn't you alter your
plans a little ? Come ! '

' Dear Mr. Barnet/ she said with a little flutter,
' I would on your account if on anybody's in
existence. But you don't know in the least what
it is you are asking — such an impracticable thing —
I won't say ridiculous, of course, because I see
that you are really in earnest, and earnestness is
never ridiculous to my mind.'

* Well, yes,' said Barnet, more slowly, dropping
her hand, which he had taken at the moment of
pleading, ' I am in earnest. The resolve, two
VOL. I »


months ago, at the Cape, to come back once more
was, it is true, rather sudden, and as 1 see now, not
well considered. But I am in earnest in ask-


* And I in declining. With all good feeling
and all kindness, let me say that I am quite
opposed to the idea of marrying a second time.'

' Well, no harm has been done,' he answered,
with the same subdued and tender humorousness
that he had shown on such occasions in early life.
' If you really won't accept me, I must put up
with it, I suppose.' His eye fell on the clock
as he spoke. ' Had you any notion that it was
so late ? ' he asked. * How absorbed I have
been ! '

She accompanied him to the hall, helped him to
put on his overcoat, and let him out of the house

' Good-night,' said Barnet, on the doorstep, as the
lamp shone in his face. 'You are not offended with


* Certainly not. Xor you with me ?'
' I'll consider whether I am or not/ he pleasantly
replied. * Good-night.'

She watched him safely through the gate ; and
when his footsteps had died away upon the road,
closed the door softly and returned to the room.

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Online LibraryThomas HardyWessex tales : strange, lively, and commonplace (Volume 1) → online text (page 9 of 10)