'She is in number twelve room,' added the maid.
Manston was alarmed, and knocked at the door. 'Cytherea!'
'I am unwell, I cannot see you,' she said.
'Are you seriously ill, dearest? Surely not.'
'No, not seriously.'
'Let me come in; I will get a doctor.'
'No, he can't see me either.'
'She won't open the door, sir, not to nobody at all!' said the chambermaid, with wonder-waiting eyes.
'Hold your tongue, and be off!' said Manston with a snap.
The maid vanished.
'Come, Cytherea, this is foolish—indeed it is—not opening the door.... I cannot comprehend what can be the matter with you. Nor can a doctor either, unless he sees you.'
Her voice had trembled more and more at each answer she gave, but nothing could induce her to come out and confront him. Hating scenes, Manston went back to the sitting-room, greatly irritated and perplexed.
And there Cytherea from the adjoining room could hear him pacing up and down. She thought, 'Suppose he insists upon seeing me—he probably may—and will burst open the door!' This notion increased, and she sank into a corner in a half-somnolent state, but with ears alive to the slightest sound. Reason could not overthrow the delirious fancy that outside her door stood Manston and all the people in the hotel, waiting to laugh her to scorn.
9. HALF-PAST EIGHT TO ELEVEN P.M.
In the meantime, Springrove was pacing up and down the arrival platform of the railway-station. Half-past eight o'clock—the time at which Owen's train was due—had come, and passed, but no train appeared.
'When will the eight-thirty train be in?' he asked of a man who was sweeping the mud from the steps.
'She is not expected yet this hour.'
'How is that?'
'Christmas-time, you see, 'tis always so. People are running about to see their friends. The trains have been like it ever since Christmas Eve, and will be for another week yet.'
Edward again went on walking and waiting under the draughty roof. He found it utterly impossible to leave the spot. His mind was so intent upon the importance of meeting with Owen, and informing him of Cytherea's whereabouts, that he could not but fancy Owen might leave the station unobserved if he turned his back, and become lost to him in the streets of the town.
The hour expired. Ten o'clock struck. 'When will the train be in?' said Edward to the telegraph clerk.
'In five-and-thirty minutes. She's now at L——. They have extra passengers, and the rails are bad to-day.'
At last, at a quarter to eleven, the train came in.
The first to alight from it was Owen, looking pale and cold. He casually glanced round upon the nearly deserted platform, and was hurrying to the outlet, when his eyes fell upon Edward. At sight of his friend he was quite bewildered, and could not speak.
'Here I am, Mr. Graye,' said Edward cheerfully. 'I have seen Cytherea, and she has been waiting for you these two or three hours.'
Owen took Edward's hand, pressed it, and looked at him in silence. Such was the concentration of his mind, that not till many minutes after did he think of inquiring how Springrove had contrived to be there before him.
10. ELEVEN O'CLOCK P.M.
On their arrival at the door of the hotel, it was arranged between Springrove and Graye that the latter only should enter, Edward waiting outside. Owen had remembered continually what his friend had frequently overlooked, that there was yet a possibility of his sister being Manston's wife, and the recollection taught him to avoid any rashness in his proceedings which might lead to bitterness hereafter.
Entering the room, he found Manston sitting in the chair which had been occupied by Cytherea on Edward's visit, three hours earlier. Before Owen had spoken, Manston arose, and stepping past him closed the door. His face appeared harassed—much more troubled than the slight circumstance which had as yet come to his knowledge seemed to account for.
Manston could form no reason for Owen's presence, but intuitively linked it with Cytherea's seclusion. 'Altogether this is most unseemly,' he said, 'whatever it may mean.'
'Don't think there is meant anything unfriendly by my coming here,' said Owen earnestly; 'but listen to this, and think if I could do otherwise than come.'
He took from his pocket the confession of Chinney the porter, as hastily written out by the vicar, and read it aloud. The aspects of Manston's face whilst he listened to the opening words were strange, dark, and mysterious enough to have justified suspicions that no deceit could be too complicated for the possessor of such impulses, had there not overridden them all, as the reading went on, a new and irrepressible expression—one unmistakably honest. It was that of unqualified amazement in the steward's mind at the news he heard. Owen looked up and saw it. The sight only confirmed him in the belief he had held throughout, in antagonism to Edward's suspicions.
There could no longer be a shadow of doubt that if the first Mrs. Manston lived, her husband was ignorant of the fact. What he could have feared by his ghastly look at first, and now have ceased to fear, it was quite futile to conjecture.
'Now I do not for a moment doubt your complete ignorance of the whole matter; you cannot suppose for an instant that I do,' said Owen when he had finished reading. 'But is it not best for both that Cytherea should come back with me till the matter is cleared up? In fact, under the circumstances, no other course is left open to me than to request it.'
Whatever Manston's original feelings had been, all in him now gave way to irritation, and irritation to rage. He paced up and down the room till he had mastered it; then said in ordinary tones—
'Certainly, I know no more than you and others know—it was a gratuitous unpleasantness in you to say you did not doubt me. Why should you, or anybody, have doubted me?'
'Well, where is my sister?' said Owen.
'Locked in the next room.'
His own answer reminded Manston that Cytherea must, by some inscrutable means, have had an inkling of the event.
Owen had gone to the door of Cytherea's room.
'Cytherea, darling—'tis Owen,' he said, outside the door. A rustling of clothes, soft footsteps, and a voice saying from the inside, 'Is it really you, Owen,—is it really?'
'O, will you take care of me?'
She unlocked the door, and retreated again. Manston came forward from the other room with a candle in his hand, as Owen pushed open the door.
Her frightened eyes were unnaturally large, and shone like stars in the darkness of the background, as the light fell upon them. She leapt up to Owen in one bound, her small taper fingers extended like the leaves of a lupine. Then she clasped her cold and trembling hands round his neck and shivered.
The sight of her again kindled all Manston's passions into activity. 'She shall not go with you,' he said firmly, and stepping a pace or two closer, 'unless you prove that she is not my wife; and you can't do it!'
'This is proof,' said Owen, holding up the paper.
'No proof at all,' said Manston hotly. ''Tis not a death-bed confession, and those are the only things of the kind held as good evidence.'
'Send for a lawyer,' Owen returned, 'and let him tell us the proper course to adopt.'
'Never mind the law—let me go with Owen!' cried Cytherea, still holding on to him. 'You will let me go with him, won't you, sir?' she said, turning appealingly to Manston.
'We'll have it all right and square,' said Manston, with more quietness. 'I have no objection to your brother sending for a lawyer, if he wants to.'
It was getting on for twelve o'clock, but the proprietor of the hotel had not yet gone to bed on account of the mystery on the first floor, which was an occurrence unusual in the quiet family lodging. Owen looked over the banisters, and saw him standing in the hall. It struck Graye that the wisest course would be to take the landlord to a certain extent into their confidence, appeal to his honour as a gentleman, and so on, in order to acquire the information he wanted, and also to prevent the episode of the evening from becoming a public piece of news. He called the landlord up to where they stood, and told him the main facts of the story.
The landlord was fortunately a quiet, prejudiced man, and a meditative smoker.
'I know the very man you want to see—the very man,' he said, looking at the general features of the candle-flame. 'Sharp as a needle, and not over-rich. Timms will put you all straight in no time—trust Timms for that.'
'He's in bed by this time for certain,' said Owen.
'Never mind that—Timms knows me, I know him. He'll oblige me as a personal favour. Wait here a bit. Perhaps, too, he's up at some party or another—he's a nice, jovial fellow, sharp as a needle, too; mind you, sharp as a needle, too.'
He went downstairs, put on his overcoat, and left the house, the three persons most concerned entering the room, and standing motionless, awkward, and silent in the midst of it. Cytherea pictured to herself the long weary minutes she would have to stand there, whilst a sleepy man could be prepared for consultation, till the constraint between them seemed unendurable to her—she could never last out the time. Owen was annoyed that Manston had not quietly arranged with him at once; Manston at Owen's homeliness of idea in proposing to send for an attorney, as if he would be a touchstone of infallible proof.
Reflection was cut short by the approach of footsteps, and in a few moments the proprietor of the hotel entered, introducing his friend. 'Mr. Timms has not been in bed,' he said; 'he had just returned from dining with a few friends, so there's no trouble given. To save time I explained the matter as we came along.'
It occurred to Owen and Manston both that they might get a misty exposition of the law from Mr. Timms at that moment of concluding dinner with a few friends.
'As far as I can see,' said the lawyer, yawning, and turning his vision inward by main force, 'it is quite a matter for private arrangement between the parties, whoever the parties are—at least at present. I speak more as a father than as a lawyer, it is true, but, let the young lady stay with her father, or guardian, safe out of shame's way, until the mystery is sifted, whatever the mystery is. Should the evidence prove to be false, or trumped up by anybody to get her away from you, her husband, you may sue them for the damages accruing from the delay.'
'Yes, yes,' said Manston, who had completely recovered his self-possession and common-sense; 'let it all be settled by herself.' Turning to Cytherea he whispered so softly that Owen did not hear the words—
'Do you wish to go back with your brother, dearest, and leave me here miserable, and lonely, or will you stay with me, your own husband.'
'I'll go back with Owen.'
'Very well.' He relinquished his coaxing tone, and went on sternly: 'And remember this, Cytherea, I am as innocent of deception in this thing as you are yourself. Do you believe me?'
'I do,' she said.
'I had no shadow of suspicion that my first wife lived. I don't think she does even now. Do you believe me?'
'I believe you,' she said.
'And now, good-evening,' he continued, opening the door and politely intimating to the three men standing by that there was no further necessity for their remaining in his room. 'In three days I shall claim her.'
The lawyer and the hotel-keeper retired first. Owen, gathering up as much of his sister's clothing as lay about the room, took her upon his arm, and followed them. Edward, to whom she owed everything, who had been left standing in the street like a dog without a home, was utterly forgotten. Owen paid the landlord and the lawyer for the trouble he had occasioned them, looked to the packing, and went to the door.
A fly, which somewhat unaccountably was seen lingering in front of the house, was called up, and Cytherea's luggage put upon it.
'Do you know of any hotel near the station that is open for night arrivals?' Owen inquired of the driver.
'A place has been bespoke for you, sir, at the White Unicorn—and the gentleman wished me to give you this.'
'Bespoken by Springrove, who ordered the fly, of course,' said Owen to himself. By the light of the street-lamp he read these lines, hurriedly traced in pencil:—
'I have gone home by the mail-train. It is better for all parties that I should be out of the way. Tell Cytherea that I apologize for having caused her such unnecessary pain, as it seems I did—but it cannot be helped now. E.S.'
Owen handed his sister into the vehicle, and told the flyman to drive on.
'Poor Springrove—I think we have served him rather badly,' he said to Cytherea, repeating the words of the note to her.
A thrill of pleasure passed through her bosom as she listened to them. They were the genuine reproach of a lover to his mistress; the trifling coldness of her answer to him would have been noticed by no man who was only a friend. But, in entertaining that sweet thought, she had forgotten herself, and her position for the instant.
Was she still Manston's wife—that was the terrible supposition, and her future seemed still a possible misery to her. For, on account of the late jarring accident, a life with Manston which would otherwise have been only a sadness, must become a burden of unutterable sorrow.
Then she thought of the misrepresentation and scandal that would ensue if she were no wife. One cause for thankfulness accompanied the reflection; Edward knew the truth.
They soon reached the quiet old inn, which had been selected for them by the forethought of the man who loved her well. Here they installed themselves for the night, arranging to go to Budmouth by the first train the next day.
At this hour Edward Springrove was fast approaching his native county on the wheels of the night-mail.
XIV. THE EVENTS OF FIVE WEEKS
1. FROM THE SIXTH TO THE THIRTEENTH OF JANUARY
Manston had evidently resolved to do nothing in a hurry.
This much was plain, that his earnest desire and intention was to raise in Cytherea's bosom no feelings of permanent aversion to him. The instant after the first burst of disappointment had escaped him in the hotel at Southampton, he had seen how far better it would be to lose her presence for a week than her respect for ever.
'She shall be mine; I will claim the young thing yet,' he insisted. And then he seemed to reason over methods for compassing that object, which, to all those who were in any degree acquainted with the recent event, appeared the least likely of possible contingencies.
He returned to Knapwater late the next day, and was preparing to call on Miss Aldclyffe, when the conclusion forced itself upon him that nothing would be gained by such a step. No; every action of his should be done openly—even religiously. At least, he called on the rector, and stated this to be his resolve.
'Certainly,' said Mr. Raunham, 'it is best to proceed candidly and fairly, or undue suspicion may fall on you. You should, in my opinion, take active steps at once.'
'I will do the utmost that lies in my power to clear up the mystery, and silence the hubbub of gossip that has been set going about me. But what can I do? They say that the man who comes first in the chain of inquiry is not to be found—I mean the porter.'
'I am sorry to say that he is not. When I returned from the station last night, after seeing Owen Graye off, I went again to the cottage where he has been lodging, to get more intelligence, as I thought. He was not there. He had gone out at dusk, saying he would be back soon. But he has not come back yet.'
'I rather doubt if we shall see him again.'
'Had I known of this, I would have done what in my flurry I did not think of doing—set a watch upon him. But why not advertise for your missing wife as a preliminary, consulting your solicitor in the meantime?'
'Advertise. I'll think about it,' said Manston, lingering on the word as he pronounced it. 'Yes, that seems a right thing—quite a right thing.'
He went home and remained moodily indoors all the next day and the next—for nearly a week, in short. Then, one evening at dusk, he went out with an uncertain air as to the direction of his walk, which resulted, however, in leading him again to the rectory.
He saw Mr. Raunham. 'Have you done anything yet?' the rector inquired.
'No—I have not,' said Manston absently. 'But I am going to set about it.' He hesitated, as if ashamed of some weakness he was about to betray. 'My object in calling was to ask if you had heard any tidings from Budmouth of my—Cytherea. You used to speak of her as one you were interested in.'
There was, at any rate, real sadness in Manston's tone now, and the rector paused to weigh his words ere he replied.
'I have not heard directly from her,' he said gently. 'But her brother has communicated with some people in the parish—'
'The Springroves, I suppose,' said Manston gloomily.
'Yes; and they tell me that she is very ill, and I am sorry to say, likely to be for some days.'
'Surely, surely, I must go and see her!' Manston cried.
'I would advise you not to go,' said Raunham. 'But do this instead—be as quick as you can in making a movement towards ascertaining the truth as regards the existence of your wife. You see, Mr. Manston, an out-step place like this is not like a city, and there is nobody to busy himself for the good of the community; whilst poor Cytherea and her brother are socially too dependent to be able to make much stir in the matter, which is a greater reason still why you should be disinterestedly prompt.'
The steward murmured an assent. Still there was the same indecision!—not the indecision of weakness—the indecision of conscious perplexity.
On Manston's return from this interview at the rectory, he passed the door of the Rising Sun Inn. Finding he had no light for his cigar, and it being three-quarters of a mile to his residence in the park, he entered the tavern to get one. Nobody was in the outer portion of the front room where Manston stood, but a space round the fire was screened off from the remainder, and inside the high oak settle, forming a part of the screen, he heard voices conversing. The speakers had not noticed his footsteps, and continued their discourse.
One of the two he recognized as a well-known night-poacher, the man who had met him with tidings of his wife's death on the evening of the conflagration. The other seemed to be a stranger following the same mode of life. The conversation was carried on in the emphatic and confidential tone of men who are slightly intoxicated, its subject being an unaccountable experience that one of them had had on the night of the fire.
What the steward heard was enough, and more than enough, to lead him to forget or to renounce his motive in entering. The effect upon him was strange and strong. His first object seemed to be to escape from the house again without being seen or heard.
Having accomplished this, he went in at the park gate, and strode off under the trees to the Old House. There sitting down by the fire, and burying himself in reflection, he allowed the minutes to pass by unheeded. First the candle burnt down in its socket and stunk: he did not notice it. Then the fire went out: he did not see it. His feet grew cold; still he thought on.
It may be remarked that a lady, a year and a quarter before this time, had, under the same conditions—an unrestricted mental absorption—shown nearly the same peculiarities as this man evinced now. The lady was Miss Aldclyffe.
It was half-past twelve when Manston moved, as if he had come to a determination.
The first thing he did the next morning was to call at Knapwater House; where he found that Miss Aldclyffe was not well enough to see him. She had been ailing from slight internal haemorrhage ever since the confession of the porter Chinney. Apparently not much aggrieved at the denial, he shortly afterwards went to the railway-station and took his departure for London, leaving a letter for Miss Aldclyffe, stating the reason of his journey thither—to recover traces of his missing wife.
During the remainder of the week paragraphs appeared in the local and other newspapers, drawing attention to the facts of this singular case. The writers, with scarcely an exception, dwelt forcibly upon a feature which had at first escaped the observation of the villagers, including Mr. Raunham—that if the announcement of the man Chinney were true, it seemed extremely probable that Mrs. Manston left her watch and keys behind on purpose to blind people as to her escape; and that therefore she would not now let herself be discovered, unless a strong pressure were put upon her. The writers added that the police were on the track of the porter, who very possibly had absconded in the fear that his reticence was criminal, and that Mr. Manston, the husband, was, with praiseworthy energy, making every effort to clear the whole matter up.
2. FROM THE EIGHTEENTH TO THE END OF JANUARY
Five days from the time of his departure, Manston returned from London and Liverpool, looking very fatigued and thoughtful. He explained to the rector and other of his acquaintance that all the inquiries he had made at his wife's old lodgings and his own had been totally barren of results.
But he seemed inclined to push the affair to a clear conclusion now that he had commenced. After the lapse of another day or two he proceeded to fulfil his promise to the rector, and advertised for the missing woman in three of the London papers. The advertisement was a carefully considered and even attractive effusion, calculated to win the heart, or at least the understanding, of any woman who had a spark of her own nature left in her.
There was no answer.
Three days later he repeated the experiment; with the same result as before.
'I cannot try any further,' said Manston speciously to the rector, his sole auditor throughout the proceedings. 'Mr. Raunham, I'll tell you the truth plainly: I don't love her; I do love Cytherea, and the whole of this business of searching for the other woman goes altogether against me. I hope to God I shall never see her again.'
'But you will do your duty at least?' said Mr. Raunham.
'I have done it,' said Manston. 'If ever a man on the face of this earth has done his duty towards an absent wife, I have towards her—living or dead—at least,' he added, correcting himself, 'since I have lived at Knapwater. I neglected her before that time—I own that, as I have owned it before.'
'I should, if I were you, adopt other means to get tidings of her if advertising fails, in spite of my feelings,' said the rector emphatically. 'But at any rate, try advertising once more. There's a satisfaction in having made any attempt three several times.'
When Manston had left the study, the rector stood looking at the fire for a considerable length of time, lost in profound reflection. He went to his private diary, and after many pauses, which he varied only by dipping his pen, letting it dry, wiping it on his sleeve, and then dipping it again, he took the following note of events:—
'January 25.—Mr. Manston has just seen me for the third time on the subject of his lost wife. There have been these peculiarities attending the three interviews:—
'The first. My visitor, whilst expressing by words his great anxiety to do everything for her recovery, showed plainly by his bearing that he was convinced he should never see her again.
'The second. He had left off feigning anxiety to do rightly by his first wife, and honestly asked after Cytherea's welfare.
'The third (and most remarkable). He seemed to have lost all consistency. Whilst expressing his love for Cytherea (which certainly is strong) and evincing the usual indifference to the first Mrs. Manston's fate, he was unable to conceal the intensity of his eagerness for me to advise him to advertise again for her.'
A week after the second, the third advertisement was inserted. A paragraph was attached, which stated that this would be the last time the announcement would appear.
3. THE FIRST OF FEBRUARY
At this, the eleventh hour, the postman brought a letter for Manston, directed in a woman's hand.
A bachelor friend of the steward's, Mr. Dickson by name, who was somewhat of a chatterer—plenus rimarum—and who boasted of an endless string of acquaintances, had come over from Casterbridge the preceding day by invitation—an invitation which had been a pleasant surprise to Dickson himself, insomuch that Manston, as a rule, voted him a bore almost to his face. He had stayed over the night, and was sitting at breakfast with his host when the important missive arrived.
Manston did not attempt to conceal the subject of the letter, or the name of the writer. First glancing the pages through, he read aloud as follows:—
'"MY HUSBAND,—I implore your forgiveness.
'"During the last thirteen months I have repeated to myself a hundred times that you should never discover what I voluntarily tell you now, namely, that I am alive and in perfect health.
'"I have seen all your advertisements. Nothing but your persistence has won me round. Surely, I thought, he must love me still. Why else should he try to win back a woman who, faithful unto death as she will be, can, in a social sense, aid him towards acquiring nothing?—rather the reverse, indeed.
'"You yourself state my own mind—that the only grounds upon which we can meet and live together, with a reasonable hope of happiness, must be a mutual consent to bury in oblivion all past differences. I heartily and willingly forget everything—and forgive everything. You will do the same, as your actions show.
'"There will be plenty of opportunity for me to explain the few facts relating to my escape on the night of the fire. I will only give the heads in this hurried note. I was grieved at your not coming to fetch me, more grieved at your absence from the station, most of all by your absence from home. On my journey to the inn I writhed under a passionate sense of wrong done me. When I had been shown to my room I waited and hoped for you till the landlord had gone upstairs to bed. I still found that you did not come, and then I finally made up my mind to leave. I had half undressed, but I put on my things again, forgetting my watch (and I suppose dropping my keys, though I am not sure where) in my hurry, and slipped out of the house. The—"'
'Well, that's a rum story,' said Mr. Dickson, interrupting.
'What's a rum story?' said Manston hastily, and flushing in the face.
'Forgetting her watch and dropping her keys in her hurry.'
'I don't see anything particularly wonderful in it. Any woman might do such a thing.'
'Any woman might if escaping from fire or shipwreck, or any such immediate danger. But it seems incomprehensible to me that any woman in her senses, who quietly decides to leave a house, should be so forgetful.'
'All that is required to reconcile your seeming with her facts is to assume that she was not in her senses, for that's what she did plainly, or how could the things have been found there? Besides, she's truthful enough.' He spoke eagerly and peremptorily.
'Yes, yes, I know that. I merely meant that it seemed rather odd.'
'O yes.' Manston read on:—
'"—and slipped out of the house. The rubbish-heap was burning up brightly, but the thought that the house was in danger did not strike me; I did not consider that it might be thatched.
'"I idled in the lane behind the wood till the last down-train had come in, not being in a mood to face strangers. Whilst I was there the fire broke out, and this perplexed me still more. However, I was still determined not to stay in the place. I went to the railway-station, which was now quiet, and inquired of the solitary man on duty there concerning the trains. It was not till I had left the man that I saw the effect the fire might have on my history. I considered also, though not in any detailed manner, that the event, by attracting the attention of the village to my former abode, might set people on my track should they doubt my death, and a sudden dread of having to go back again to Knapwater—a place which had seemed inimical to me from first to last—prompted me to run back and bribe the porter to secrecy. I then walked on to Anglebury, lingering about the outskirts of the town till the morning train came in, when I proceeded by it to London, and then took these lodgings, where I have been supporting myself ever since by needlework, endeavouring to save enough money to pay my passage home to America, but making melancholy progress in my attempt. However, all that is changed—can I be otherwise than happy at it? Of course not. I am happy. Tell me what I am to do, and believe me still to be your faithful wife, EUNICE.
'"My name here is (as before)
'"MRS. RONDLEY, and my address, 79 ADDINGTON STREET, LAMBETH.'"
The name and address were written on a separate slip of paper.
'So it's to be all right at last then,' said Manston's friend. 'But after all there's another woman in the case. You don't seem very sorry for the little thing who is put to such distress by this turn of affairs? I wonder you can let her go so coolly.' The speaker was looking out between the mullions of the window—noticing that some of the lights were glazed in lozenges, some in squares—as he said the words, otherwise he would have seen the passionate expression of agonized hopelessness that flitted across the steward's countenance when the remark was made. He did not see it, and Manston answered after a short interval. The way in which he spoke of the young girl who had believed herself his wife, whom, a few short days ago, he had openly idolized, and whom, in his secret heart, he idolized still, as far as such a form of love was compatible with his nature, showed that from policy or otherwise, he meant to act up to the requirements of the position into which fate appeared determined to drive him.
'That's neither here nor there,' he said; 'it is a point of honour to do as I am doing, and there's an end of it.'
'Yes. Only I thought you used not to care overmuch about your first bargain.'
'I certainly did not at one time. One is apt to feel rather weary of wives when they are so devilish civil under all aspects, as she used to be. But anything for a change—Abigail is lost, but Michal is recovered. You would hardly believe it, but she seems in fancy to be quite another bride—in fact, almost as if she had really risen from the dead, instead of having only done so virtually.'
'You let the young pink one know that the other has come or is coming?'
'Cui bono?' The steward meditated critically, showing a portion of his intensely wide and regular teeth within the ruby lips.
'I cannot say anything to her that will do any good,' he resumed. 'It would be awkward—either seeing or communicating with her again. The best plan to adopt will be to let matters take their course—she'll find it all out soon enough.'
Manston found himself alone a few minutes later. He buried his face in his hands, and murmured, 'O my lost one! O my Cytherea! That it should come to this is hard for me! 'Tis now all darkness—"a land of darkness as darkness itself; and of the shadow of death without any order, and where the light is as darkness."'
Yes, the artificial bearing which this extraordinary man had adopted before strangers ever since he had overheard the conversation at the inn, left him now, and he mourned for Cytherea aloud.
4. THE TWELFTH OF FEBRUARY
Knapwater Park is the picture—at eleven o'clock on a muddy, quiet, hazy, but bright morning—a morning without any blue sky, and without any shadows, the earth being enlivened and lit up rather by the spirit of an invisible sun than by its bodily presence.
The local Hunt had met for the day's sport on the open space of ground immediately in front of the steward's residence—called in the list of appointments, 'Old House, Knapwater'—the meet being here once every season, for the pleasure of Miss Aldclyffe and her friends.
Leaning out from one of the first-floor windows, and surveying with the keenest interest the lively picture of pink and black coats, rich-coloured horses, and sparkling bits and spurs, was the returned and long-lost woman, Mrs. Manston.
The eyes of those forming the brilliant group were occasionally turned towards her, showing plainly that her adventures were the subject of conversation equally with or more than the chances of the coming day. She did not flush beneath their scrutiny; on the contrary, she seemed rather to enjoy it, her eyes being kindled with a light of contented exultation, subdued to square with the circumstances of her matronly position.
She was, at the distance from which they surveyed her, an attractive woman—comely as the tents of Kedar. But to a close observer it was palpable enough that God did not do all the picture. Appearing at least seven years older than Cytherea, she was probably her senior by double the number, the artificial means employed to heighten the natural good appearance of her face being very cleverly applied. Her form was full and round, its voluptuous maturity standing out in strong contrast to the memory of Cytherea's lissom girlishness.
It seems to be an almost universal rule that a woman who once has courted, or who eventually will court, the society of men on terms dangerous to her honour cannot refrain from flinging the meaning glance whenever the moment arrives in which the glance is strongly asked for, even if her life and whole future depended upon that moment's abstinence.
Had a cautious, uxorious husband seen in his wife's countenance what might now have been seen in this dark-eyed woman's as she caught a stray glance of flirtation from one or other of the red-coated gallants outside, he would have passed many days in an agony of restless jealousy and doubt. But Manston was not such a husband, and he was, moreover, calmly attending to his business at the other end of the manor.
The steward had fetched home his wife in the most matter-of-fact way a few days earlier, walking round the village with her the very next morning—at once putting an end, by this simple solution, to all the riddling inquiries and surmises that were rank in the village and its neighbourhood. Some men said that this woman was as far inferior to Cytherea as earth to heaven; others, older and sager, thought Manston better off with such a wife than he would have been with one of Cytherea's youthful impulses, and inexperience in household management. All felt their curiosity dying out of them. It was the same in Carriford as in other parts of the world—immediately circumstantial evidence became exchanged for direct, the loungers in court yawned, gave a final survey, and turned away to a subject which would afford more scope for speculation.
XV. THE EVENTS OF THREE WEEKS
1. FROM THE TWELFTH OF FEBRUARY TO THE SECOND OF MARCH
Owen Graye's recovery from the illness that had incapacitated him for so long a time was, professionally, the dawn of a brighter prospect for him in every direction, though the change was at first very gradual, and his movements and efforts were little more than mechanical. With the lengthening of the days, and the revival of building operations for the forthcoming season, he saw himself, for the first time, on a road which, pursued with care, would probably lead to a comfortable income at some future day. But he was still very low down the hill as yet.
The first undertaking entrusted to him in the new year began about a month after his return from Southampton. Mr. Gradfield had come back to him in the wake of his restored health, and offered him the superintendence, as clerk of works, of a church which was to be nearly rebuilt at the village of Tolchurch, fifteen or sixteen miles from Budmouth, and about half that distance from Carriford.
'I am now being paid at the rate of a hundred and fifty pounds a year,' he said to his sister in a burst of thankfulness, 'and you shall never, Cytherea, be at any tyrannous lady's beck and call again as long as I live. Never pine or think about what has happened, dear; it's no disgrace to you. Cheer up; you'll be somebody's happy wife yet.'
He did not say Edward Springrove's, for, greatly to his disappointment, a report had reached his ears that the friend to whom Cytherea owed so much had been about to pack up his things and sail for Australia. However, this was before the uncertainty concerning Mrs. Manston's existence had been dispersed by her return, a phenomenon that altered the cloudy relationship in which Cytherea had lately been standing towards her old lover, to one of distinctness; which result would have been delightful but for circumstances about to be mentioned.
Cytherea was still pale from her recent illness, and still greatly dejected. Until the news of Mrs. Manston's return had reached them, she had kept herself closely shut up during the day-time, never venturing forth except at night. Sleeping and waking she had been in perpetual dread lest she should still be claimed by a man whom, only a few weeks earlier, she had regarded in the light of a future husband with quiet assent, not unmixed with cheerfulness.
But the removal of the uneasiness in this direction—by Mrs. Manston's arrival, and her own consequent freedom—had been the imposition of pain in another. Utterly fictitious details of the finding of Cytherea and Manston had been invented and circulated, unavoidably reaching her ears in the course of time. Thus the freedom brought no happiness, and it seemed well-nigh impossible that she could ever again show herself the sparkling creature she once had been—
'Apt to entice a deity.'
On this account, and for the first time in his life, Owen made a point of concealing from her the real state of his feelings with regard to the unhappy transaction. He writhed in secret under the humiliation to which they had been subjected, till the resentment it gave rise to, and for which there was no vent, was sometimes beyond endurance; it induced a mood that did serious damage to the material and plodding perseverance necessary if he would secure permanently the comforts of a home for them.
They gave up their lodgings at Budmouth, and went to Tolchurch as soon as the work commenced.
Here they were domiciled in one half of an old farmhouse, standing not far from the ivy-covered church tower (which was all that was to remain of the original structure). The long steep roof of this picturesque dwelling sloped nearly down to the ground, the old tiles that covered it being overgrown with rich olive-hued moss. New red tiles in twos and threes had been used for patching the holes wrought by decay, lighting up the whole harmonious surface with dots of brilliant scarlet.
The chief internal features of this snug abode were a wide fireplace, enormous cupboards, a brown settle, and several sketches on the wood mantel, done in outline with the point of a hot poker—the subjects mainly consisting of old men walking painfully erect, with a curly-tailed dog behind.
After a week or two of residence in Tolchurch, and rambles amid the quaint scenery circumscribing it, a tranquillity began to spread itself through the mind of the maiden, which Graye hoped would be a preface to her complete restoration. She felt ready and willing to live the whole remainder of her days in the retirement of their present quarters: she began to sing about the house in low tremulous snatches—
'"—I said, if there's peace to be found in the world, A heart that is humble may hope for it here."'
2. THE THIRD OF MARCH
Her convalescence had arrived at this point on a certain evening towards the end of the winter, when Owen had come in from the building hard by, and was changing his muddy boots for slippers, previously to sitting down to toast and tea.
A prolonged though quiet knocking came to the door.
The only person who ever knocked at their door in that way was the new vicar, the prime mover in the church-building. But he was that evening dining with the Squire.
Cytherea was uneasy at the sound—she did not know why, unless it was because her nerves were weakened by the sickness she had undergone. Instead of opening the door she ran out of the room, and upstairs.
'What nonsense, Cytherea!' said her brother, going to the door.
Edward Springrove stood in the grey light outside.
'Capital—not gone to Australia, and not going, of course!' cried Owen. 'What's the use of going to such a place as that?—I never believed that you would.'
'I am going back to London again to-morrow,' said Springrove, 'and I called to say a word before going. Where is... ?'
'She has just run upstairs. Come in—never mind scraping your shoes—we are regular cottagers now; stone floor, yawning chimney-corner, and all, you see.'
'Mrs. Manston came,' said Edward awkwardly, when he had sat down in the chimney-corner by preference.
'Yes.' At mention of one of his skeletons Owen lost his blitheness at once, and fell into a reverie.
'The history of her escape is very simple.'
'You know I always had wondered, when my father was telling any of the circumstances of the fire to me, how it could be that a woman could sleep so soundly as to be unaware of her horrid position till it was too late even to give shout or sound of any kind.'
'Well, I think that would have been possible, considering her long wearisome journey. People have often been suffocated in their beds before they awoke. But it was hardly likely a body would be completely burnt to ashes as this was assumed to be, though nobody seemed to see it at the time. And how positive the surgeon was too, about those bits of bone! Why he should have been so, nobody can tell. I cannot help saying that if it has ever been possible to find pure stupidity incarnate, it was in that jury of Carriford. There existed in the mass the stupidity of twelve and not the penetration of one.'
'Is she quite well?' said Springrove.
'Who?—O, my sister, Cytherea. Thank you, nearly well, now. I'll call her.'
'Wait one minute. I have a word to say to you.'
Owen sat down again.
'You know, without my saying it, that I love Cytherea as dearly as ever.... I think she loves me too,—does she really?'
There was in Owen enough of that worldly policy on the subject of matchmaking which naturally resides in the breasts of parents and guardians, to give him a certain caution in replying, and, younger as he was by five years than Edward, it had an odd effect.
'Well, she may possibly love you still,' he said, as if rather in doubt as to the truth of his words.
Springrove's countenance instantly saddened; he had expected a simple 'Yes,' at the very least. He continued in a tone of greater depression—
'Supposing she does love me, would it be fair to you and to her if I made her an offer of marriage, with these dreary conditions attached—that we lived for a few years on the narrowest system, till a great debt, which all honour and duty require me to pay off, shall be paid? My father, by reason of the misfortune that befell him, is under a great obligation to Miss Aldclyffe. He is getting old, and losing his energies. I am attempting to work free of the burden. This makes my prospects gloomy enough at present.
'But consider again,' he went on. 'Cytherea has been left in a nameless and unsatisfactory, though innocent state, by this unfortunate, and now void, marriage with Manston. A marriage with me, though under the—materially—untoward conditions I have mentioned, would make us happy; it would give her a locus standi. If she wished to be out of the sound of her misfortunes we would go to another part of England—emigrate—do anything.'
'I'll call Cytherea,' said Owen. 'It is a matter which she alone can settle.' He did not speak warmly. His pride could not endure the pity which Edward's visit and errand tacitly implied. Yet, in the other affair, his heart went with Edward; he was on the same beat for paying off old debts himself.
'Cythie, Mr. Springrove is here,' he said, at the foot of the staircase.
His sister descended the creaking old steps with a faltering tread, and stood in the firelight from the hearth. She extended her hand to Springrove, welcoming him by a mere motion of the lip, her eyes averted—a habit which had engendered itself in her since the beginning of her illness and defamation. Owen opened the door and went out—leaving the lovers alone. It was the first time they had met since the memorable night at Southampton.
'I will get a light,' she said, with a little embarrassment.
'No—don't, please, Cytherea,' said Edward softly, 'Come and sit down with me.'
'O yes. I ought to have asked you to,' she returned timidly. 'Everybody sits in the chimney-corner in this parish. You sit on that side. I'll sit here.'
Two recesses—one on the right, one on the left hand—were cut in the inside of the fireplace, and here they sat down facing each other, on benches fitted to the recesses, the fire glowing on the hearth between their feet. Its ruddy light shone on the underslopes of their faces, and spread out over the floor of the room with the low horizontality of the setting sun, giving to every grain of sand and tumour in the paving a long shadow towards the door.
Edward looked at his pale love through the thin azure twines of smoke that went up like ringlets between them, and invested her, as seen through its medium, with the shadowy appearance of a phantom. Nothing is so potent for coaxing back the lost eyes of a woman as a discreet silence in the man who has so lost them—and thus the patient Edward coaxed hers. After lingering on the hearth for half a minute, waiting in vain for another word from him, they were lifted into his face.
He was ready primed to receive them. 'Cytherea, will you marry me?' he said.
He could not wait in his original position till the answer came. Stepping across the front of the fire to her own side of the chimney corner, he reclined at her feet, and searched for her hand. She continued in silence awhile.
'Edward, I can never be anybody's wife,' she then said sadly, and with firmness.
'Think of it in every light,' he pleaded; 'the light of love, first. Then, when you have done that, see how wise a step it would be. I can only offer you poverty as yet, but I want—I do so long to secure you from the intrusion of that unpleasant past, which will often and always be thrust before you as long as you live the shrinking solitary life you do now—a life which purity chooses, it may be; but to the outside world it appears like the enforced loneliness of neglect and scorn—and tongues are busy inventing a reason for it which does not exist.'
'I know all about it,' she said hastily; 'and those are the grounds of my refusal. You and Owen know the whole truth—the two I love best on earth—and I am content. But the scandal will be continually repeated, and I can never give any one the opportunity of saying to you—that—your wife....' She utterly broke down and wept.
'Don't, my own darling!' he entreated. 'Don't, Cytherea!'
'Please to leave me—we will be friends, Edward—but don't press me—my mind is made up—I cannot—I will not marry you or any man under the present ambiguous circumstances—never will I—I have said it: never!'
They were both silent. He listlessly regarded the illuminated blackness overhead, where long flakes of soot floated from the sides and bars of the chimney-throat like tattered banners in ancient aisles; whilst through the square opening in the midst one or two bright stars looked down upon them from the grey March sky. The sight seemed to cheer him.
'At any rate you will love me?' he murmured to her.
'Yes—always—for ever and for ever!'
He kissed her once, twice, three times, and arose to his feet, slowly withdrawing himself from her side towards the door. Cytherea remained with her gaze fixed on the fire. Edward went out grieving, but hope was not extinguished even now.
He smelt the fragrance of a cigar, and immediately afterwards saw a small red star of fire against the darkness of the hedge. Graye was pacing up and down the lane, smoking as he walked. Springrove told him the result of the interview.
'You are a good fellow, Edward,' he said; 'but I think my sister is right.'
'I wish you would believe Manston a villain, as I do,' said Springrove.
'It would be absurd of me to say that I like him now—family feeling prevents it, but I cannot in honesty say deliberately that he is a bad man.'
Edward could keep the secret of Manston's coercion of Miss Aldclyffe in the matter of the houses a secret no longer. He told Owen the whole story.
'That's one thing,' he continued, 'but not all. What do you think of this—I have discovered that he went to Budmouth post-office for a letter the day before the first advertisement for his wife appeared in the papers. One was there for him, and it was directed in his wife's handwriting, as I can prove. This was not till after the marriage with Cytherea, it is true, but if (as it seems to show) the advertising was a farce, there is a strong presumption that the rest of the piece was.'
Owen was too astounded to speak. He dropped his cigar, and fixed his eyes upon his companion.
'With his first wife?'
'Yes—with his wife. I am firmly persuaded of it.'
'What did you discover?'
'That he fetched from the post-office at Budmouth a letter from her the day before the first advertisement appeared.'
Graye was lost in a long consideration. 'Ah!' he said, 'it would be difficult to prove anything of that sort now. The writing could not be sworn to, and if he is guilty the letter is destroyed.'
'I have other suspicions—'
'Yes—as you said' interrupted Owen, who had not till now been able to form the complicated set of ideas necessary for picturing the position. 'Yes, there is this to be remembered—Cytherea had been taken from him before that letter came—and his knowledge of his wife's existence could not have originated till after the wedding. I could have sworn he believed her dead then. His manner was unmistakable.'
'Well, I have other suspicions,' repeated Edward; 'and if I only had the right—if I were her husband or brother, he should be convicted of bigamy yet.'
'The reproof was not needed,' said Owen, with a little bitterness. 'What can I do—a man with neither money nor friends—whilst Manston has Miss Aldclyffe and all her fortune to back him up? God only knows what lies between the mistress and her steward, but since this has transpired—if it is true—I can believe the connection to be even an unworthy one—a thing I certainly never so much as owned to myself before.'
3. THE FIFTH OF MARCH
Edward's disclosure had the effect of directing Owen Graye's thoughts into an entirely new and uncommon channel.
On the Monday after Springrove's visit, Owen had walked to the top of a hill in the neighbourhood of Tolchurch—a wild hill that had no name, beside a barren down where it never looked like summer. In the intensity of his meditations on the ever-present subject, he sat down on a weather-beaten boundary-stone gazing towards the distant valleys—seeing only Manston's imagined form.
Had his defenceless sister been trifled with? that was the question which affected him. Her refusal of Edward as a husband was, he knew, dictated solely by a humiliated sense of inadequacy to him in repute, and had not been formed till since the slanderous tale accounting for her seclusion had been circulated. Was it not true, as Edward had hinted, that he, her brother, was neglecting his duty towards her in allowing Manston to thrive unquestioned, whilst she was hiding her head for no fault at all?
Was it possible that Manston was sensuous villain enough to have contemplated, at any moment before the marriage with Cytherea, the return of his first wife, when he should have grown weary of his new toy? Had he believed that, by a skilful manipulation of such circumstances as chance would throw in his way, he could escape all suspicion of having known that she lived? Only one fact within his own direct knowledge afforded the least ground for such a supposition. It was that, possessed by a woman only in the humble and unprotected station of a lady's hired companion, his sister's beauty might scarcely have been sufficient to induce a selfish man like Manston to make her his wife, unless he had foreseen the possibility of getting rid of her again.
'But for that stratagem of Manston's in relation to the Springroves,' Owen thought, 'Cythie might now have been the happy wife of Edward. True, that he influenced Miss Aldclyffe only rests on Edward's suspicions, but the grounds are good—the probability is strong.'
He went indoors and questioned Cytherea.
'On the night of the fire, who first said that Mrs. Manston was burnt?' he asked.
'I don't know who started the report.'
'Was it Manston?'
'It was certainly not he. All doubt on the subject was removed before he came to the spot—that I am certain of. Everybody knew that she did not escape after the house was on fire, and thus all overlooked the fact that she might have left before—of course that would have seemed such an improbable thing for anybody to do.'
'Yes, until the porter's story of her irritation and doubt as to her course made it natural.'
'What settled the matter at the inquest,' said Cytherea, 'was Mr. Manston's evidence that the watch was his wife's.'
'He was sure of that, wasn't he?'
'I believe he said he was certain of it.'
'It might have been hers—left behind in her perturbation, as they say it was—impossible as that seems at first sight. Yes—on the whole, he might have believed in her death.'
'I know by several proofs that then, and at least for some time after, he had no other thought than that she was dead. I now think that before the porter's confession he knew something about her—though not that she lived.'
'Why do you?'
'From what he said to me on the evening of the wedding-day, when I had fastened myself in the room at the hotel, after Edward's visit. He must have suspected that I knew something, for he was irritated, and in a passion of uneasy doubt. He said, "You don't suppose my first wife is come to light again, madam, surely?" Directly he had let the remark slip out, he seemed anxious to withdraw it.'
'That's odd,' said Owen.
'I thought it very odd.'
'Still we must remember he might only have hit upon the thought by accident, in doubt as to your motive. Yes, the great point to discover remains the same as ever—did he doubt his first impression of her death before he married you. I can't help thinking he did, although he was so astounded at our news that night. Edward swears he did.'
'It was perhaps only a short time before,' said Cytherea; 'when he could hardly recede from having me.'
'Seasoning justice with mercy as usual, Cytherea. 'Tis unfair to yourself to talk like that. If I could only bring him to ruin as a bigamist—supposing him to be one—I should die happy. That's what we must find out by fair means or foul—was he a wilful bigamist?'
'It is no use trying, Owen. You would have to employ a solicitor, and how can you do that?'
'I can't at all—I know that very well. But neither do I altogether wish to at present—a lawyer must have a case—facts to go upon, that means. Now they are scarce at present—as scarce as money is with us, and till we have found more money there is no hurry for a lawyer. Perhaps by the time we have the facts we shall have the money. The only thing we lose in working alone in this way, is time—not the issue: for the fruit that one mind matures in a twelvemonth forms a more perfectly organized whole than that of twelve minds in one month, especially if the interests of the single one are vitally concerned, and those of the twelve are only hired. But there is not only my mind available—you are a shrewd woman, Cythie, and Edward is an earnest ally. Then, if we really get a sure footing for a criminal prosecution, the Crown will take up the case.'
'I don't much care to press on in the matter,' she murmured. 'What good can it do us, Owen, after all?'
'Selfishly speaking, it will do this good—that all the facts of your journey to Southampton will become known, and the scandal will die. Besides, Manston will have to suffer—it's an act of justice to you and to other women, and to Edward Springrove.'
He now thought it necessary to tell her of the real nature of the Springroves' obligation to Miss Aldclyffe—and their nearly certain knowledge that Manston was the prime mover in effecting their embarrassment. Her face flushed as she listened.
'And now,' he said, 'our first undertaking is to find out where Mrs. Manston lived during the separation; next, when the first communications passed between them after the fire.'
'If we only had Miss Aldclyffe's countenance and assistance as I used to have them,' Cytherea returned, 'how strong we should be! O, what power is it that he exercises over her, swaying her just as he wishes! She loves me now. Mrs. Morris in her letter said that Miss Aldclyffe prayed for me—yes, she heard her praying for me, and crying. Miss Aldclyffe did not mind an old friend like Mrs. Morris knowing it, either. Yet in opposition to this, notice her dead silence and inaction throughout this proceeding.'
'It is a mystery; but never mind that now,' said Owen impressively. 'About where Mrs. Manston has been living. We must get this part of it first—learn the place of her stay in the early stage of their separation, during the period of Manston's arrival here, and so on, for that was where she was first communicated with on the subject of coming to Knapwater, before the fire; and that address, too, was her point of departure when she came to her husband by stealth in the night—you know—the time I visited you in the evening and went home early in the morning, and it was found that he had been visited too. Ah! couldn't we inquire of Mrs. Leat, who keeps the post-office at Carriford, if she remembers where the letters to Mrs. Manston were directed?'
'He never posted his letters to her in the parish—it was remarked at the time. I was thinking if something relating to her address might not be found in the report of the inquest in the Casterbridge Chronicle of the date. Some facts about the inquest were given in the papers to a certainty.'
Her brother caught eagerly at the suggestion. 'Who has a file of the Chronicles?' he said.
'Mr. Raunham used to file them,' said Cytherea. 'He was rather friendly-disposed towards me, too.'
Owen could not, on any consideration, escape from his attendance at the church-building till Saturday evening; and thus it became necessary, unless they actually wasted time, that Cytherea herself should assist. 'I act under your orders, Owen,' she said.
XVI. THE EVENTS OF ONE WEEK
1. MARCH THE SIXTH
The next morning the opening move of the game was made. Cytherea, under cover of a thick veil, hired a conveyance and drove to within a mile or so of Carriford. It was with a renewed sense of depression that she saw again the objects which had become familiar to her eye during her sojourn under Miss Aldclyffe's roof—the outline of the hills, the meadow streams, the old park trees. She hastened by a lonely path to the rectory-house, and asked if Mr. Raunham was at home.
Now the rector, though a solitary bachelor, was as gallant and courteous to womankind as an ancient Iberian; and, moreover, he was Cytherea's friend in particular, to an extent far greater than she had ever surmised. Rarely visiting his relative, Miss Aldclyffe, except on parish matters, more rarely still being called upon by Miss Aldclyffe, Cytherea had learnt very little of him whilst she lived at Knapwater. The relationship was on the impecunious paternal side, and for this branch of her family the lady of the estate had never evinced much sympathy. In looking back upon our line of descent it is an instinct with us to feel that all our vitality was drawn from the richer party to any unequal marriage in the chain.
Since the death of the old captain, the rector's bearing in Knapwater House had been almost that of a stranger, a circumstance which he himself was the last man in the world to regret. This polite indifference was so frigid on both sides that the rector did not concern himself to preach at her, which was a great deal in a rector; and she did not take the trouble to think his sermons poor stuff, which in a cynical woman was a great deal more.
Though barely fifty years of age, his hair was as white as snow, contrasting strangely with the redness of his skin, which was as fresh and healthy as a lad's. Cytherea's bright eyes, mutely and demurely glancing up at him Sunday after Sunday, had been the means of driving away many of the saturnine humours that creep into an empty heart during the hours of a solitary life; in this case, however, to supplant them, when she left his parish, by those others of a more aching nature which accompany an over-full one. In short, he had been on the verge of feeling towards her that passion to which his dignified self-respect would not give its true name, even in the privacy of his own thought.
He received her kindly; but she was not disposed to be frank with him. He saw her wish to be reserved, and with genuine good taste and good nature made no comment whatever upon her request to be allowed to see the Chronicle for the year before the last. He placed the papers before her on his study table, with a timidity as great as her own, and then left her entirely to herself.
She turned them over till she came to the first heading connected with the subject of her search—'Disastrous Fire and Loss of Life at Carriford.'
The sight, and its calamitous bearing upon her own life, made her so dizzy that she could, for a while, hardly decipher the letters. Stifling recollection by an effort she nerved herself to her work, and carefully read the column. The account reminded her of no other fact than was remembered already.
She turned on to the following week's report of the inquest. After a miserable perusal she could find no more pertaining to Mrs. Manston's address than this:—
'ABRAHAM BROWN, of Hoxton, London, at whose house the deceased woman had been living, deposed,' etc.
Nobody else from London had attended the inquest. She arose to depart, first sending a message of thanks to Mr. Raunham, who was out of doors gardening.
He stuck his spade into the ground, and accompanied her to the gate.
'Can I help you in anything, Cytherea?' he said, using her Christian name by an intuition that unpleasant memories might be revived if he called her Miss Graye after wishing her good-bye as Mrs. Manston at the wedding. Cytherea saw the motive and appreciated it, nevertheless replying evasively—
'I only guess and fear.'
He earnestly looked at her again.
'Promise me that if you want assistance, and you think I can give it, you will come to me.'
'I will,' she said.
The gate closed between them.
'You don't want me to help you in anything now, Cytherea?' he repeated.
If he had spoken what he felt, 'I want very much to help you, Cytherea, and have been watching Manston on your account,' she would gladly have accepted his offer. As it was, she was perplexed, and raised her eyes to his, not so fearlessly as before her trouble, but as modestly, and with still enough brightness in them to do fearful execution as she said over the gate—
'No, thank you.'
She returned to Tolchurch weary with her day's work. Owen's greeting was anxious—
She gave him the words from the report of the inquest, pencilled on a slip of paper.
'Now to find out the name of the street and number,' Owen remarked.
'Owen,' she said, 'will you forgive me for what I am going to say? I don't think I can—indeed I don't think I can—take any further steps towards disentangling the mystery. I still think it a useless task, and it does not seem any duty of mine to be revenged upon Mr. Manston in any way.' She added more gravely, 'It is beneath my dignity as a woman to labour for this; I have felt it so all day.'
'Very well,' he said, somewhat shortly; 'I shall work without you then. There's dignity in justice.' He caught sight of her pale tired face, and the dilated eye which always appeared in her with weariness. 'Darling,' he continued warmly, and kissing her, 'you shall not work so hard again—you are worn out quite. But you must let me do as I like.'
2. MARCH THE TENTH
On Saturday evening Graye hurried off to Casterbridge, and called at the house of the reporter to the Chronicle. The reporter was at home, and came out to Graye in the passage. Owen explained who and what he was, and asked the man if he would oblige him by turning to his notes of the inquest at Carriford in the December of the year preceding the last—just adding that a family entanglement, of which the reporter probably knew something, made him anxious to ascertain some additional details of the event, if any existed.
'Certainly,' said the other, without hesitation; 'though I am afraid I haven't much beyond what we printed at the time. Let me see—my old note-books are in my drawer at the office of the paper: if you will come with me I can refer to them there.' His wife and family were at tea inside the room, and with the timidity of decent poverty everywhere he seemed glad to get a stranger out of his domestic groove.
They crossed the street, entered the office, and went thence to an inner room. Here, after a short search, was found the book required. The precise address, not given in the condensed report that was printed, but written down by the reporter, was as follows:—
'ABRAHAM BROWN, LODGING-HOUSE KEEPER, 41 CHARLES SQUARE, HOXTON.'
Owen copied it, and gave the reporter a small fee. 'I want to keep this inquiry private for the present,' he said hesitatingly. 'You will perhaps understand why, and oblige me.'
The reporter promised. 'News is shop with me,' he said, 'and to escape from handling it is my greatest social enjoyment.'
It was evening, and the outer room of the publishing-office was lighted up with flaring jets of gas. After making the above remark, the reporter came out from the inner apartment in Graye's company, answering an expression of obligation from Owen with the words that it was no trouble. At the moment of his speech, he closed behind him the door between the two rooms, still holding his note-book in his hand.
Before the counter of the front room stood a tall man, who was also speaking, when they emerged. He said to the youth in attendance, 'I will take my paper for this week now I am here, so that you needn't post it to me.'
The stranger then slightly turned his head, saw Owen, and recognized him. Owen passed out without recognizing the other as Manston.
Manston then looked at the reporter, who, after walking to the door with Owen, had come back again to lock up his books. Manston did not need to be told that the shabby marble-covered book which he held in his hand, opening endways and interleaved with blotting-paper, was an old reporting-book. He raised his eyes to the reporter's face, whose experience had not so schooled his features but that they betrayed a consciousness, to one half initiated as the other was, that his late proceeding had been connected with events in the life of the steward. Manston said no more, but, taking his newspaper, followed Owen from the office, and disappeared in the gloom of the street.
Edward Springrove was now in London again, and on this same evening, before leaving Casterbridge, Owen wrote a careful letter to him, stating therein all the facts that had come to his knowledge, and begging him, as he valued Cytherea, to make cautious inquiries. A tall man was standing under the lamp-post, about half-a-dozen yards above the post-office, when he dropped the letter into the box.
That same night, too, for a reason connected with the rencounter with Owen Graye, the steward entertained the idea of rushing off suddenly to London by the mail-train, which left Casterbridge at ten o'clock. But remembering that letters posted after the hour at which Owen had obtained his information—whatever that was—could not be delivered in London till Monday morning, he changed his mind and went home to Knapwater. Making a confidential explanation to his wife, arrangements were set on foot for his departure by the mail on Sunday night.
3. MARCH THE ELEVENTH
Starting for church the next morning several minutes earlier than was usual with him, the steward intentionally loitered along the road from the village till old Mr. Springrove overtook him. Manston spoke very civilly of the morning, and of the weather, asking how the farmer's barometer stood, and when it was probable that the wind might change. It was not in Mr. Springrove's nature—going to church as he was, too—to return anything but a civil answer to such civil questions, however his feelings might have been biassed by late events. The conversation was continued on terms of greater friendliness.
'You must be feeling settled again by this time, Mr. Springrove, after the rough turn-out you had on that terrible night in November.'
'Ay, but I don't know about feeling settled, either, Mr. Manston. The old window in the chimney-corner of the old house I shall never forget. No window in the chimney-corner where I am now, and I had been used to it for more than fifty years. Ted says 'tis a great loss to me, and he knows exactly what I feel.'
'Your son is again in a good situation, I believe?' said Manston, imitating that inquisitiveness into the private affairs of the natives which passes for high breeding in country villages.
'Yes, sir. I hope he'll keep it, or do something else and stick to it.'
''Tis to be hoped he'll be steady now.'
'He's always been that, I assure 'ee,' said the old man tartly.
'Yes—yes—I mean intellectually steady. Intellectual wild oats will thrive in a soil of the strictest morality.'
'Intellectual gingerbread! Ted's steady enough—that's all I know about it.'
'Of course—of course. Has he respectable lodgings? My own experience has shown me that that's a great thing to a young man living alone in London.'
'Warwick Street, Charing Cross—that's where he is.'
'Well, to be sure—strange! A very dear friend of mine used to live at number fifty-two in that very same street.'
'Edward lives at number forty-nine—how very near being the same house!' said the old farmer, pleased in spite of himself.
'Very,' said Manston. 'Well, I suppose we had better step along a little quicker, Mr. Springrove; the parson's bell has just begun.'
'Number forty-nine,' he murmured.
4. MARCH THE TWELFTH
Edward received Owen's letter in due time, but on account of his daily engagements he could not attend to any request till the clock had struck five in the afternoon. Rushing then from his office in Westminster, he called a hansom and proceeded to Hoxton. A few minutes later he knocked at the door of number forty-one, Charles Square, the old lodging of Mrs. Manston.
A tall man who would have looked extremely handsome had he not been clumsily and closely wrapped up in garments that were much too elderly in style for his years, stood at the corner of the quiet square at the same instant, having, too, alighted from a cab, that had been driven along Old Street in Edward's rear. He smiled confidently when Springrove knocked.
Nobody came to the door. Springrove knocked again.
This brought out two people—one at the door he had been knocking upon, the other from the next on the right.
'Is Mr. Brown at home?' said Springrove.
'When will he be in?'
'Can you tell me where I may find him?'
'No. O, here he is coming, sir. That's Mr. Brown.'
Edward looked down the pavement in the direction pointed out by the woman, and saw a man approaching. He proceeded a few steps to meet him.
Edward was impatient, and to a certain extent still a countryman, who had not, after the manner of city men, subdued the natural impulse to speak out the ruling thought without preface. He said in a quiet tone to the stranger, 'One word with you—do you remember a lady lodger of yours of the name of Mrs. Manston?'
Mr. Brown half closed his eyes at Springrove, somewhat as if he were looking into a telescope at the wrong end.
'I have never let lodgings in my life,' he said, after his survey.
'Didn't you attend an inquest a year and a half ago, at Carriford?'
'Never knew there was such a place in the world, sir; and as to lodgings, I have taken acres first and last during the last thirty years, but I have never let an inch.'
'I suppose there is some mistake,' Edward murmured, and turned away. He and Mr. Brown were now opposite the door next to the one he had knocked at. The woman who was still standing there had heard the inquiry and the result of it.
'I expect it is the other Mr. Brown, who used to live there, that you want, sir,' she said. 'The Mr. Brown that was inquired for the other day?'
'Very likely that is the man,' said Edward, his interest reawakening.
'He couldn't make a do of lodging-letting here, and at last he went to Cornwall, where he came from, and where his brother still lived, who had often asked him to come home again. But there was little luck in the change; for after London they say he couldn't stand the rainy west winds they get there, and he died in the December following. Will you step into the passage?'
'That's unfortunate,' said Edward, going in. 'But perhaps you remember a Mrs. Manston living next door to you?'
'O yes,' said the landlady, closing the door. 'The lady who was supposed to have met with such a horrible fate, and was alive all the time. I saw her the other day.'
'Since the fire at Carriford?'
'Yes. Her husband came to ask if Mr. Brown was still living here—just as you might. He seemed anxious about it; and then one evening, a week or fortnight afterwards, when he came again to make further inquiries, she was with him. But I did not speak to her—she stood back, as if she were shy. I was interested, however, for old Mr. Brown had told me all about her when he came back from the inquest.'
'Did you know Mrs. Manston before she called the other day?'
'No. You see she was only Mr. Brown's lodger for two or three weeks, and I didn't know she was living there till she was near upon leaving again—we don't notice next-door people much here in London. I much regretted I had not known her when I heard what had happened. It led me and Mr. Brown to talk about her a great deal afterwards. I little thought I should see her alive after all.'
'And when do you say they came here together?'
'I don't exactly remember the day—though I remember a very beautiful dream I had that same night—ah, I shall never forget it! Shoals of lodgers coming along the square with angels' wings and bright golden sovereigns in their hands wanting apartments at West End prices. They would not give any less; no, not if you—'
'Yes. Did Mrs. Manston leave anything, such as papers, when she left these lodgings originally?' said Edward, though his heart sank as he asked. He felt that he was outwitted. Manston and his wife had been there before him, clearing the ground of all traces.
'I have always said "No" hitherto,' replied the woman, 'considering I could say no more if put upon my oath, as I expected to be. But speaking in a common everyday way now the occurrence is past, I believe a few things of some kind (though I doubt if they were papers) were left in a workbox she had, because she talked about it to Mr. Brown, and was rather angry at what occurred—you see, she had a temper by all account, and so I didn't like to remind the lady of this workbox when she came the other day with her husband.'
'And about the workbox?'
'Well, from what was casually dropped, I think Mrs. Manston had a few articles of furniture she didn't want, and when she was leaving they were put in a sale just by. Amongst her things were two workboxes very much alike. One of these she intended to sell, the other she didn't, and Mr. Brown, who collected the things together, took the wrong one to the sale.'
'What was in it?'
'O, nothing in particular, or of any value—some accounts, and her usual sewing materials I think—nothing more. She didn't take much trouble to get it back—she said the bills were worth nothing to her or anybody else, but that she should have liked to keep the box because her husband gave it her when they were first married, and if he found she had parted with it, he would be vexed.'
'Did Mrs. Manston, when she called recently with her husband, allude to this, or inquire for it, or did Mr. Manston?'
'No—and I rather wondered at it. But she seemed to have forgotten it—indeed, she didn't make any inquiry at all, only standing behind him, listening to his; and he probably had never been told anything about it.'
'Whose sale were these articles of hers taken to?'
'Who was the auctioneer? Mr. Halway. His place is the third turning from the end of that street you see there. Anybody will tell you the shop—his name is written up.'
Edward went off to follow up his clue with a promptness which was dictated more by a dogged will to do his utmost than by a hope of doing much. When he was out of sight, the tall and cloaked man, who had watched him, came up to the woman's door, with an appearance of being in breathless haste.
'Has a gentleman been here inquiring about Mrs. Manston?'
'Yes; he's just gone.'
'Dear me! I want him.'
'He's gone to Mr. Halway's.'
'I think I can give him some information upon the subject. Does he pay pretty liberally?'
'He gave me half-a-crown.'
'That scale will do. I'm a poor man, and will see what my little contribution to his knowledge will fetch. But, by the way, perhaps you told him all I know—where she lived before coming to live here?'
'I didn't know where she lived before coming here. O no—I only said what Mr. Brown had told me. He seemed a nice, gentle young man, or I shouldn't have been so open as I was.'
'I shall now about catch him at Mr. Halway's,' said the man, and went away as hastily as he had come.
Edward in the meantime had reached the auction-room. He found some difficulty, on account of the inertness of those whose only inducement to an action is a mere wish from another, in getting the information he stood in need of, but it was at last accorded him. The auctioneer's book gave the name of Mrs. Higgins, 3 Canley Passage, as the purchaser of the lot which had included Mrs. Manston's workbox.
Thither Edward went, followed by the man. Four bell pulls, one above the other like waistcoat-buttons, appeared on the door-post. Edward seized the first he came to.
'Who did you woant?' said a thin voice from somewhere.
Edward looked above and around him; nobody was visible.
'Who did you woant?' said the thin voice again.
He found now that the sound proceeded from below the grating covering the basement window. He dropped his glance through the bars, and saw a child's white face.
'Who did you woant?' said the voice the third time, with precisely the same languid inflection.
'Mrs. Higgins,' said Edward.
'Third bell up,' said the face, and disappeared.
He pulled the third bell from the bottom, and was admitted by another child, the daughter of the woman he was in search of. He gave the little thing sixpence, and asked for her mamma. The child led him upstairs.
Mrs. Higgins was the wife of a carpenter who from want of employment one winter had decided to marry. Afterwards they both took to drink, and sank into desperate circumstances. A few chairs and a table were the chief articles of furniture in the third-floor back room which they occupied. A roll of baby-linen lay on the floor; beside it a pap-clogged spoon and an overturned tin pap-cup. Against the wall a Dutch clock was fixed out of level, and ticked wildly in longs and shorts, its entrails hanging down beneath its white face and wiry hands, like the faeces of a Harpy ('foedissima ventris proluvies, uncaeque manus, et pallida semper ora'). A baby was crying against every chair-leg, the whole family of six or seven being small enough to be covered by a washing-tub. Mrs. Higgins sat helpless, clothed in a dress which had hooks and eyes in plenty, but never one opposite the other, thereby rendering the dress almost useless as a screen to the bosom. No workbox was visible anywhere.
It was a depressing picture of married life among the very poor of a city. Only for one short hour in the whole twenty-four did husband and wife taste genuine happiness. It was in the evening, when, after the sale of some necessary article of furniture, they were under the influence of a quartern of gin.
Of all the ingenious and cruel satires that from the beginning till now have been stuck like knives into womankind, surely there is not one so lacerating to them, and to us who love them, as the trite old fact, that the most wretched of men can, in the twinkling of an eye, find a wife ready to be more wretched still for the sake of his company.
Edward hastened to despatch his errand.
Mrs. Higgins had lately pawned the workbox with other useless articles of lumber, she said. Edward bought the duplicate of her, and went downstairs to the pawnbroker's.
In the back division of a musty shop, amid the heterogeneous collection of articles and odours invariably crowding such places, he produced his ticket, and with a sense of satisfaction out of all proportion to the probable worth of his acquisition, took the box and carried it off under his arm. He attempted to lift the cover as he walked, but found it locked.
It was dusk when Springrove reached his lodging. Entering his small sitting-room, the front apartment on the ground floor, he struck a light, and proceeded to learn if any scrap or mark within or upon his purchase rendered it of moment to the business in hand. Breaking open the cover with a small chisel, and lifting the tray, he glanced eagerly beneath, and found—nothing.
He next discovered that a pocket or portfolio was formed on the underside of the cover. This he unfastened, and slipping his hand within, found that it really contained some substance. First he pulled out about a dozen tangled silk and cotton threads. Under them were a short household account, a dry moss-rosebud, and an old pair of carte-de-visite photographs. One of these was a likeness of Mrs. Manston—'Eunice' being written under it in ink—the other of Manston himself.
He sat down dispirited. This was all the fruit of his task—not a single letter, date, or address of any kind to help him—and was it likely there would be?
However, thinking he would send the fragments, such as they were, to Graye, in order to satisfy him that he had done his best so far, he scribbled a line, and put all except the silk and cotton into an envelope. Looking at his watch, he found it was then twenty minutes to seven; by affixing an extra stamp he would be enabled to despatch them by that evening's post. He hastily directed the packet, and ran with it at once to the post-office at Charing Cross.
On his return he took up the workbox again to examine it more leisurely. He then found there was also a small cavity in the tray under the pincushion, which was movable by a bit of ribbon. Lifting this he uncovered a flattened sprig of myrtle, and a small scrap of crumpled paper. The paper contained a verse or two in a man's handwriting. He recognized it as Manston's, having seen notes and bills from him at his father's house. The stanza was of a complimentary character, descriptive of the lady who was now Manston's wife.
'Whoso for hours or lengthy days Shall catch her aspect's changeful rays, Then turn away, can none recall Beyond a galaxy of all In hazy portraiture; Lit by the light of azure eyes Like summer days by summer skies: Her sweet transitions seem to be A kind of pictured melody, And not a set contour. 'AE. M.'
To shake, pull, and ransack the box till he had almost destroyed it was now his natural action. But it contained absolutely nothing more.
'Disappointed again,' he said, flinging down the box, the bit of paper, and the withered twig that had lain with it.
Yet valueless as the new acquisition was, on second thoughts he considered that it would be worth while to make good the statement in his late note to Graye—that he had sent everything the box contained except the sewing-thread. Thereupon he enclosed the verse and myrtle-twig in another envelope, with a remark that he had overlooked them in his first search, and put it on the table for the next day's post.
In his hurry and concentration upon the matter that occupied him, Springrove, on entering his lodging and obtaining a light, had not waited to pull down the blind or close the shutters. Consequently all that he had done had been visible from the street. But as on an average not one person a minute passed along the quiet pavement at this time of the evening, the discovery of the omission did not much concern his mind.
But the real state of the case was that a tall man had stood against the opposite wall and watched the whole of his proceeding. When Edward came out and went to the Charing Cross post-office, the man followed him and saw him drop the letter into the box. The stranger did not further trouble himself to follow Springrove back to his lodging again.
Manston now knew that there had been photographs of some kind in his wife's workbox, and though he had not been near enough to see them, he guessed whose they were. The least reflection told him to whom they had been sent.
He paused a minute under the portico of the post-office, looking at the two or three omnibuses stopping and starting in front of him. Then he rushed along the Strand, through Holywell Street, and on to Old Boswell Court. Kicking aside the shoeblacks who began to importune him as he passed under the colonnade, he turned up the narrow passage to the publishing-office of the Post-Office Directory. He begged to be allowed to see the Directory of the south-west counties of England for a moment.
The shopman immediately handed down the volume from a shelf, and Manston retired with it to the window-bench. He turned to the county, and then to the parish of Tolchurch. At the end of the historical and topographical description of the village he read:—
'Postmistress—Mrs. Hurston. Letters received at 6.30 A.M. by foot-post from Anglebury.'
Returning his thanks, he handed back the book and quitted the office, thence pursuing his way to an obscure coffee-house by the Strand, where he now partook of a light dinner. But rest seemed impossible with him. Some absorbing intention kept his body continually on the move. He paid his bill, took his bag in his hand, and went out to idle about the streets and over the river till the time should have arrived at which the night-mail left the Waterloo Station, by which train he intended to return homeward.
There exists, as it were, an outer chamber to the mind, in which, when a man is occupied centrally with the most momentous question of his life, casual and trifling thoughts are just allowed to wander softly for an interval, before being banished altogether. Thus, amid his concentration did Manston receive perceptions of the individuals about him in the lively thoroughfare of the Strand; tall men looking insignificant; little men looking great and profound; lost women of miserable repute looking as happy as the days are long; wives, happy by assumption, looking careworn and miserable. Each and all were alike in this one respect, that they followed a solitary trail like the inwoven threads which form a banner, and all were equally unconscious of the significant whole they collectively showed forth.
At ten o'clock he turned into Lancaster Place, crossed the river, and entered the railway-station, where he took his seat in the down mail-train, which bore him, and Edward Springrove's letter to Graye, far away from London.
XVII. THE EVENTS OF ONE DAY
1. MARCH THE THIRTEENTH. THREE TO SIX O'CLOCK A.M.
They entered Anglebury Station in the dead, still time of early morning, the clock over the booking-office pointing to twenty-five minutes to three. Manston lingered on the platform and saw the mail-bags brought out, noticing, as a pertinent pastime, the many shabby blotches of wax from innumerable seals that had been set upon their mouths. The guard took them into a fly, and was driven down the road to the post-office.
It was a raw, damp, uncomfortable morning, though, as yet, little rain was falling. Manston drank a mouthful from his flask and walked at once away from the station, pursuing his way through the gloom till he stood on the side of the town adjoining, at a distance from the last house in the street of about two hundred yards.
The station road was also the turnpike-road into the country, the first part of its course being across a heath. Having surveyed the highway up and down to make sure of its bearing, Manston methodically set himself to walk backwards and forwards a stone's throw in each direction. Although the spring was temperate, the time of day, and the condition of suspense in which the steward found himself, caused a sensation of chilliness to pervade his frame in spite of the overcoat he wore. The drizzling rain increased, and drops from the trees at the wayside fell noisily upon the hard road beneath them, which reflected from its glassy surface the faint halo of light hanging over the lamps of the adjacent town.
Here he walked and lingered for two hours, without seeing or hearing a living soul. Then he heard the market-house clock strike five, and soon afterwards, quick hard footsteps smote upon the pavement of the street leading towards him. They were those of the postman for the Tolchurch beat. He reached the bottom of the street, gave his bags a final hitch-up, stepped off the pavement, and struck out for the country with a brisk shuffle.
Manston then turned his back upon the town, and walked slowly on. In two minutes a flickering light shone upon his form, and the postman overtook him.
The new-comer was a short, stooping individual of above five-and-forty, laden on both sides with leather bags large and small, and carrying a little lantern strapped to his breast, which cast a tiny patch of light upon the road ahead.
'A tryen mornen for travellers!' the postman cried, in a cheerful voice, without turning his head or slackening his trot.
'It is, indeed,' said Manston, stepping out abreast of him. 'You have a long walk every day.'
'Yes—a long walk—for though the distance is only sixteen miles on the straight—that is, eight to the furthest place and eight back, what with the ins and outs to the gentlemen's houses, it makes two-and-twenty for my legs. Two-and-twenty miles a day, how many a year? I used to reckon it, but I never do now. I don't care to think o' my wear and tear, now it do begin to tell upon me.'
Thus the conversation was begun, and the postman proceeded to narrate the different strange events that marked his experience. Manston grew very friendly.
'Postman, I don't know what your custom is,' he said, after a while; 'but between you and me, I always carry a drop of something warm in my pocket when I am out on such a morning as this. Try it.' He handed the bottle of brandy.
'If you'll excuse me, please. I haven't took no stimmilents these five years.'
''Tis never too late to mend.'
'Against the regulations, I be afraid.'
'Who'll know it?'
'That's true—nobody will know it. Still, honesty's the best policy.'
'Ah—it is certainly. But, thank God, I've been able to get on without it yet. You'll surely drink with me?'
'Really, 'tis a'most too early for that sort o' thing—however, to oblige a friend, I don't object to the faintest shadder of a drop.' The postman drank, and Manston did the same to a very slight degree. Five minutes later, when they came to a gate, the flask was pulled out again.
'Well done!' said the postman, beginning to feel its effect; 'but guide my soul, I be afraid 'twill hardly do!'
'Not unless 'tis well followed, like any other line you take up,' said Manston. 'Besides, there's a way of liking a drop of liquor, and of being good—even religious—at the same time.'
'Ay, for some thimble-and-button in-an-out fellers; but I could never get into the knack o' it; not I.'
'Well, you needn't be troubled; it isn't necessary for the higher class of mind to be religious—they have so much common-sense that they can risk playing with fire.'
'That hits me exactly.'
'In fact, a man I know, who always had no other god but "Me;" and devoutly loved his neighbour's wife, says now that believing is a mistake.'
'Well, to be sure! However, believing in God is a mistake made by very few people, after all.'
'A true remark.'
'Not one Christian in our parish would walk half a mile in a rain like this to know whether the Scripture had concluded him under sin or grace.'
'Nor in mine.'
'Ah, you may depend upon it they'll do away wi' Goddymity altogether afore long, although we've had him over us so many years.'
'There's no knowing.'
'And I suppose the Queen 'ill be done away wi' then. A pretty concern that'll be! Nobody's head to put on your letters; and then your honest man who do pay his penny will never be known from your scamp who don't. O, 'tis a nation!'
'Warm the cockles of your heart, however. Here's the bottle waiting.'
'I'll oblige you, my friend.'
The drinking was repeated. The postman grew livelier as he went on, and at length favoured the steward with a song, Manston himself joining in the chorus.
'He flung his mallet against the wall, Said, "The Lord make churches and chapels to fall, And there'll be work for tradesmen all!" When Joan's ale was new, My boys, When Joan's ale was new.'
'You understand, friend,' the postman added, 'I was originally a mason by trade: no offence to you if you be a parson?'
'None at all,' said Manston.
The rain now came down heavily, but they pursued their path with alacrity, the produce of the several fields between which the lane wound its way being indicated by the peculiar character of the sound emitted by the falling drops. Sometimes a soaking hiss proclaimed that they were passing by a pasture, then a patter would show that the rain fell upon some large-leafed root crop, then a paddling plash announced the naked arable, the low sound of the wind in their ears rising and falling with each pace they took.
Besides the small private bags of the county families, which were all locked, the postman bore the large general budget for the remaining inhabitants along his beat. At each village or hamlet they came to, the postman searched for the packet of letters destined for that place, and thrust it into an ordinary letter-hole cut in the door of the receiver's cottage—the village post-offices being mostly kept by old women who had not yet risen, though lights moving in other cottage windows showed that such people as carters, woodmen, and stablemen had long been stirring.
The postman had by this time become markedly unsteady, but he still continued to be too conscious of his duties to suffer the steward to search the bag. Manston was perplexed, and at lonely points in the road cast his eyes keenly upon the short bowed figure of the man trotting through the mud by his side, as if he were half inclined to run a very great risk indeed.
It frequently happened that the houses of farmers, clergymen, etc., lay a short distance up or down a lane or path branching from the direct track of the postman's journey. To save time and distance, at the point of junction of some of these paths with the main road, the gate-post was hollowed out to form a letter-box, in which the postman deposited his missives in the morning, looking in the box again in the evening to collect those placed there for the return post. Tolchurch Vicarage and Farmstead, lying back from the village street, were served on this principle. This fact the steward now learnt by conversing with the postman, and the discovery relieved Manston greatly, making his intentions much clearer to himself than they had been in the earlier stages of his journey.
They had reached the outskirts of the village. Manston insisted upon the flask being emptied before they proceeded further. This was done, and they approached the church, the vicarage, and the farmhouse in which Owen and Cytherea were living.
The postman paused, fumbled in his bag, took out by the light of his lantern some half-dozen letters, and tried to sort them. He could not perform the task.
'We be crippled disciples a b'lieve,' he said, with a sigh and a stagger.
'Not drunk, but market-merry,' said Manston cheerfully.
'Well done! If I baint so weak that I can't see the clouds—much less letters. Guide my soul, if so be anybody should tell the Queen's postmaster-general of me! The whole story will have to go through Parliament House, and I shall be high-treasoned—as safe as houses—and be fined, and who'll pay for a poor martel! O, 'tis a world!'
'Trust in the Lord—he'll pay.'
'He pay a b'lieve! why should he when he didn't drink the drink? He pay a b'lieve! D'ye think the man's a fool?'
'Well, well, I had no intention of hurting your feelings—but how was I to know you were so sensitive?'
'True—you were not to know I was so sensitive. Here's a caddle wi' these letters! Guide my soul, what will Billy do!'
Manston offered his services.
'They are to be divided,' the man said.
'How?' said Manston.
'These, for the village, to be carried on into it: any for the vicarage or vicarage farm must be left in the box of the gate-post just here. There's none for the vicarage-house this mornen, but I saw when I started there was one for the clerk o' works at the new church. This is it, isn't it?'