Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Chapter 7

The wet day arrived with all the promptness that might have
been expected of it in this land of rains and mists. The
alder bushes behind the gymnasium dripped monotonously leaf
upon leaf, added to this being the purl of the shallow stream
a little way off, producing a sense of satiety in watery
sounds. Though there was drizzle in the open meads, the rain
here in the thicket was comparatively slight, and two men with
fishing tackle who stood beneath one of the larger bushes
found its boughs a sufficient shelter.

'We may as well walk home again as study nature here, Willy,'
said the taller and elder of the twain. 'I feared it would
continue when we started. The magnificent sport you speak of
must rest for to-day.'

The other looked at his watch, but made no particular reply.

'Come, let us move on. I don't like intruding into other
people's grounds like this,' De Stancy continued.

'We are not intruding. Anybody walks outside this fence.' He
indicated an iron railing newly tarred, dividing the wilder
underwood amid which they stood from the inner and well-kept
parts of the shrubbery, and against which the back of the
gymnasium was built.

Light footsteps upon a gravel walk could be heard on the other
side of the fence, and a trio of cloaked and umbrella-screened
figures were for a moment discernible. They vanished behind
the gymnasium; and again nothing resounded but the river
murmurs and the clock-like drippings of the leafage.

'Hush!' said Dare.

'No pranks, my boy,' said De Stancy suspiciously. 'You should
be above them.'

'And you should trust to my good sense, captain,' Dare
remonstrated. 'I have not indulged in a prank since the sixth
year of my pilgrimage. I have found them too damaging to my
interests. Well, it is not too dry here, and damp injures
your health, you say. Have a pull for safety's sake.' He
presented a flask to De Stancy.

The artillery officer looked down at his nether garments.

'I don't break my rule without good reason,' he observed.

'I am afraid that reason exists at present.'

'I am afraid it does. What have you got?'

'Only a little wine.'

'What wine?'

'Do try it. I call it "the blushful Hippocrene," that the
poet describes as


"Tasting of Flora and the country green;
Dance, and Provencal song, and sun-burnt mirth."'

De Stancy took the flask, and drank a little.

'It warms, does it not?' said Dare.

'Too much,' said De Stancy with misgiving. 'I have been taken
unawares. Why, it is three parts brandy, to my taste, you
scamp!'

Dare put away the wine. 'Now you are to see something,' he
said.

'Something--what is it?' Captain De Stancy regarded him with
a puzzled look.

'It is quite a curiosity, and really worth seeing. Now just
look in here.'

The speaker advanced to the back of the building, and withdrew
the wood billet from the wall.

'Will, I believe you are up to some trick,' said De Stancy,
not, however, suspecting the actual truth in these
unsuggestive circumstances, and with a comfortable
resignation, produced by the potent liquor, which would have
been comical to an outsider, but which, to one who had known
the history and relationship of the two speakers, would have
worn a sadder significance. 'I am too big a fool about you to
keep you down as I ought; that's the fault of me, worse luck.'

He pressed the youth's hand with a smile, went forward, and
looked through the hole into the interior of the gymnasium.
Dare withdrew to some little distance, and watched Captain De
Stancy's face, which presently began to assume an expression
of interest.

What was the captain seeing? A sort of optical poem.

Paula, in a pink flannel costume, was bending, wheeling and
undulating in the air like a gold-fish in its globe, sometimes
ascending by her arms nearly to the lantern, then lowering
herself till she swung level with the floor. Her aunt Mrs.
Goodman, and Charlotte De Stancy, were sitting on camp-stools
at one end, watching her gyrations, Paula occasionally
addressing them with such an expression as--'Now, Aunt, look
at me--and you, Charlotte--is not that shocking to your weak
nerves,' when some adroit feat would be repeated, which,
however, seemed to give much more pleasure to Paula herself in
performing it than to Mrs. Goodman in looking on, the latter
sometimes saying, 'O, it is terrific--do not run such a risk
again!'

It would have demanded the poetic passion of some joyous
Elizabethan lyrist like Lodge, Nash, or Constable, to fitly
phrase Paula's presentation of herself at this moment of
absolute abandonment to every muscular whim that could take
possession of such a supple form. The white manilla ropes
clung about the performer like snakes as she took her
exercise, and the colour in her face deepened as she went on.
Captain De Stancy felt that, much as he had seen in early life
of beauty in woman, he had never seen beauty of such a real
and living sort as this. A recollection of his vow, together
with a sense that to gaze on the festival of this Bona Dea
was, though so innocent and pretty a sight, hardly fair or
gentlemanly, would have compelled him to withdraw his eyes,
had not the sportive fascination of her appearance glued them
there in spite of all. And as if to complete the picture of
Grace personified and add the one thing wanting to the charm
which bound him, the clouds, till that time thick in the sky,
broke away from the upper heaven, and allowed the noonday sun
to pour down through the lantern upon her, irradiating her
with a warm light that was incarnadined by her pink doublet
and hose, and reflected in upon her face. She only required a
cloud to rest on instead of the green silk net which actually
supported her reclining figure for the moment, to be quite
Olympian; save indeed that in place of haughty effrontery
there sat on her countenance only the healthful sprightliness
of an English girl.

Dare had withdrawn to a point at which another path crossed
the path occupied by De Stancy. Looking in a side direction,
he saw Havill idling slowly up to him over the silent grass.
Havill's knowledge of the appointment had brought him out to
see what would come of it. When he neared Dare, but was still
partially hidden by the boughs from the third of the party,
the former simply pointed to De Stancy upon which Havill stood
and peeped at him. 'Is she within there?' he inquired.

Dare nodded, and whispered, 'You need not have asked, if you
had examined his face.'

'That's true.'

'A fermentation is beginning in him,' said Dare, half
pitifully; 'a purely chemical process; and when it is complete
he will probably be clear, and fiery, and sparkling, and quite
another man than the good, weak, easy fellow that he was.'

To precisely describe Captain De Stancy's admiration was
impossible. A sun seemed to rise in his face. By watching
him they could almost see the aspect of her within the wall,
so accurately were her changing phases reflected in him. He
seemed to forget that he was not alone.

'And is this,' he murmured, in the manner of one only half
apprehending himself, 'and is this the end of my vow?'

Paula was saying at this moment, 'Ariel sleeps in this
posture, does he not, Auntie?' Suiting the action to the word
she flung out her arms behind her head as she lay in the green
silk hammock, idly closed her pink eyelids, and swung herself
to and fro.

Thomas Hardy