Down, downward they went, and yet further down--their descent at each step seeming to outmeasure their advance. Their skirts were scratched noisily by the furze, their shoulders brushed by the ferns, which, though dead and dry, stood erect as when alive, no sufficient winter weather having as yet arrived to beat them down. Their Tartarean situation might by some have been called an imprudent one for two unattended women. But these shaggy recesses were at all seasons a familiar surrounding to Olly and Mrs. Yeobright; and the addition of darkness lends no frightfulness to the face of a friend.
"And so Tamsin has married him at last," said Olly, when the incline had become so much less steep that their foot-steps no longer required undivided attention.
Mrs. Yeobright answered slowly, "Yes; at last."
"How you will miss her--living with 'ee as a daughter, as she always have."
"I do miss her."
Olly, though without the tact to perceive when remarks were untimely, was saved by her very simplicity from rendering them offensive. Questions that would have been resented in others she could ask with impunity. This accounted for Mrs. Yeobright's acquiescence in the revival of an evidently sore subject.
"I was quite strook to hear you'd agreed to it, ma'am, that I was," continued the besom-maker.
"You were not more struck by it than I should have been last year this time, Olly. There are a good many sides to that wedding. I could not tell you all of them, even if I tried."
"I felt myself that he was hardly solid-going enough to mate with your family. Keeping an inn--what is it? But 'a's clever, that's true, and they say he was an engineering gentleman once, but has come down by being too outwardly given."
"I saw that, upon the whole, it would be better she should marry where she wished."
"Poor little thing, her feelings got the better of her, no doubt. 'Tis nature. Well, they may call him what they will--he've several acres of heth-ground broke up here, besides the public house, and the heth-croppers, and his manners be quite like a gentleman's. And what's done cannot be undone."
"It cannot," said Mrs. Yeobright. "See, here's the wagon-track at last. Now we shall get along better."
The wedding subject was no further dwelt upon; and soon a faint diverging path was reached, where they parted company, Olly first begging her companion to remind Mr. Wildeve that he had not sent her sick husband the bottle of wine promised on the occasion of his marriage. The besom-maker turned to the left towards her own house, behind a spur of the hill, and Mrs. Yeobright followed the straight track, which further on joined the highway by the Quiet Woman Inn, whither she supposed her niece to have returned with Wildeve from their wedding at Anglebury that day.
She first reached Wildeve's Patch, as it was called, a plot of land redeemed from the heath, and after long and laborious years brought into cultivation. The man who had discovered that it could be tilled died of the labour; the man who succeeded him in possession ruined himself in fertilizing it. Wildeve came like Amerigo Vespucci, and received the honours due to those who had gone before.
When Mrs. Yeobright had drawn near to the inn, and was about to enter, she saw a horse and vehicle some two hundred yards beyond it, coming towards her, a man walking alongside with a lantern in his hand. It was soon evident that this was the reddleman who had inquired for her. Instead of entering the inn at once, she walked by it and towards the van.
The conveyance came close, and the man was about to pass her with little notice, when she turned to him and said, "I think you have been inquiring for me? I am Mrs. Yeobright of Blooms-End."
The reddleman started, and held up his finger. He stopped the horses, and beckoned to her to withdraw with him a few yards aside, which she did, wondering.
"You don't know me, ma'am, I suppose?" he said.
"I do not," said she. "Why, yes, I do! You are young Venn--your father was a dairyman somewhere here?"
"Yes; and I knew your niece, Miss Tamsin, a little. I have something bad to tell you."
"About her--no! She has just come home, I believe, with her husband. They arranged to return this afternoon--to the inn beyond here."
"She's not there."
"How do you know?"
"Because she's here. She's in my van," he added slowly.
"What new trouble has come?" murmured Mrs. Yeobright, putting her hand over her eyes.
"I can't explain much, ma'am. All I know is that, as I was going along the road this morning, about a mile out of Anglebury, I heard something trotting after me like a doe, and looking round there she was, white as death itself. 'Oh, Diggory Venn!' she said, 'I thought 'twas you--will you help me? I am in trouble.'"
"How did she know your Christian name?" said Mrs. Yeobright doubtingly.
"I had met her as a lad before I went away in this trade. She asked then if she might ride, and then down she fell in a faint. I picked her up and put her in, and there she has been ever since. She has cried a good deal, but she has hardly spoke; all she has told me being that she was to have been married this morning. I tried to get her to eat something, but she couldn't; and at last she fell asleep."
"Let me see her at once," said Mrs. Yeobright, hastening towards the van.
The reddleman followed with the lantern, and, stepping up first, assisted Mrs. Yeobright to mount beside him. On the door being opened she perceived at the end of the van an extemporized couch, around which was hung apparently all the drapery that the reddleman possessed, to keep the occupant of the little couch from contact with the red materials of his trade. A young girl lay thereon, covered with a cloak. She was asleep, and the light of the lantern fell upon her features.
A fair, sweet, and honest country face was revealed, reposing in a nest of wavy chestnut hair. It was between pretty and beautiful. Though her eyes were closed, one could easily imagine the light necessarily shining in them as the culmination of the luminous workmanship around. The groundwork of the face was hopefulness; but over it now I ay like a foreign substance a film of anxiety and grief. The grief had been there so shortly as to have abstracted nothing of the bloom, and had as yet but given a dignity to what it might eventually undermine. The scarlet of her lips had not had time to abate, and just now it appeared still more intense by the absence of the neighbouring and more transient colour of her cheek. The lips frequently parted, with a murmur of words. She seemed to belong rightly to a madrigal--to require viewing through rhyme and harmony.
One thing at least was obvious: she was not made to be looked at thus. The reddleman had appeared conscious of as much, and, while Mrs. Yeobright looked in upon her, he cast his eyes aside with a delicacy which well became him. The sleeper apparently thought so too, for the next moment she opened her own.
The lips then parted with something of anticipation, something more of doubt; and her several thoughts and fractions of thoughts, as signalled by the changes on her face, were exhibited by the light to the utmost nicety. An ingenuous, transparent life was disclosed, as if the flow of her existence could be seen passing within her. She understood the scene in a moment.
"O yes, it is I, Aunt," she cried. "I know how frightened you are, and how you cannot believe it; but all the same, it is I who have come home like this!"
"Tamsin, Tamsin!" said Mrs. Yeobright, stooping over the young woman and kissing her. "O my dear girl!"
Thomasin was now on the verge of a sob, but by an unexpected self-command she uttered no sound. With a gentle panting breath she sat upright.
"I did not expect to see you in this state, any more than you me," she went on quickly. "Where am I, Aunt?"
"Nearly home, my dear. In Egdon Bottom. What dreadful thing is it?"
"I'll tell you in a moment. So near, are we? Then I will get out and walk. I want to go home by the path."
"But this kind man who has done so much will, I am sure, take you right on to my house?" said the aunt, turning to the reddleman, who had withdrawn from the front of the van on the awakening of the girl, and stood in the road.
"Why should you think it necessary to ask me? I will, of course," said he.
"He is indeed kind," murmured Thomasin. "I was once acquainted with him, Aunt, and when I saw him today I thought I should prefer his van to any conveyance of a stranger. But I'll walk now. Reddleman, stop the horses, please."
The man regarded her with tender reluctance, but stopped them
Aunt and niece then descended from the van, Mrs. Yeobright saying to its owner, "I quite recognize you now. What made you change from the nice business your father left you?"
"Well, I did," he said, and looked at Thomasin, who blushed a little. "Then you'll not be wanting me any more tonight, ma'am?"
Mrs. Yeobright glanced around at the dark sky, at the hills, at the perishing bonfires, and at the lighted window of the inn they had neared. "I think not," she said, "since Thomasin wishes to walk. We can soon run up the path and reach home--we know it well."
And after a few further words they parted, the reddleman moving onwards with his van, and the two women remaining standing in the road. As soon as the vehicle and its driver had withdrawn so far as to be beyond all possible reach of her voice, Mrs. Yeobright turned to her niece.
"Now, Thomasin," she said sternly, "what's the meaning of this disgraceful performance?"
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