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When her husband's letter reached Grace's hands, bearing upon it
the postmark of a distant town, it never once crossed her mind
that Fitzpiers was within a mile of her still. she felt relieved
that he did not write more bitterly of the quarrel with her
father, whatever its nature might have been; but the general
frigidity of his communication quenched in her the incipient spark
that events had kindled so shortly before.
From this centre of information it was made known in Hintock that
the doctor had gone away, and as none but the Melbury household
was aware that he did not return on the night of his accident, no
excitement manifested itself in the village.
Thus the early days of May passed by. None but the nocturnal
birds and animals observed that late one evening, towards the
middle of the month, a closely wrapped figure, with a crutch under
one arm and a stick in his hand, crept out from Hintock House
across the lawn to the shelter of the trees, taking thence a slow
and laborious walk to the nearest point of the turnpike-road. The
mysterious personage was so disguised that his own wife would
hardly have known him. Felice Charmond was a practised hand at
make-ups, as well she might be; and she had done her utmost in
padding and painting Fitzpiers with the old materials of her art
in the recesses of the lumber-room.
In the highway he was met by a covered carriage, which conveyed
him to Sherton-Abbas, whence he proceeded to the nearest port on
the south coast, and immediately crossed the Channel.
But it was known to everybody that three days after this time Mrs.
Charmond executed her long-deferred plan of setting out for a long
term of travel and residence on the Continent. She went off one
morning as unostentatiously as could be, and took no maid with
her, having, she said, engaged one to meet her at a point farther
on in her route. After that, Hintock House, so frequently
deserted, was again to be let. Spring had not merged in summer
when a clinching rumor, founded on the best of evidence, reached
the parish and neighborhood. Mrs. Charmond and Fitzpiers had been
seen together in Baden, in relations which set at rest the
question that had agitated the little community ever since the
Melbury had entered the Valley of Humiliation even farther than
Grace. His spirit seemed broken.
But once a week he mechanically went to market as usual, and here,
as he was passing by the conduit one day, his mental condition
expressed largely by his gait, he heard his name spoken by a voice
formerly familiar. He turned and saw a certain Fred Beaucock--
once a promising lawyer's clerk and local dandy, who had been
called the cleverest fellow in Sherton, without whose brains the
firm of solicitors employing him would be nowhere. But later on
Beaucock had fallen into the mire. He was invited out a good
deal, sang songs at agricultural meetings and burgesses' dinners;
in sum, victualled himself with spirits more frequently than was
good for the clever brains or body either. He lost his situation,
and after an absence spent in trying his powers elsewhere, came
back to his native town, where, at the time of the foregoing
events in Hintock, he gave legal advice for astonishingly small
fees--mostly carrying on his profession on public-house settles,
in whose recesses he might often have been overheard making
country-people's wills for half a crown; calling with a learned
voice for pen-and-ink and a halfpenny sheet of paper, on which he
drew up the testament while resting it in a little space wiped
with his hand on the table amid the liquid circles formed by the
cups and glasses. An idea implanted early in life is difficult to
uproot, and many elderly tradespeople still clung to the notion
that Fred Beaucock knew a great deal of law.
It was he who had called Melbury by name. "You look very down,
Mr. Melbury--very, if I may say as much," he observed, when the
timber-merchant turned. "But I know--I know. A very sad case--
very. I was bred to the law, as you know, and am professionally
no stranger to such matters. Well, Mrs. Fitzpiers has her
"How--what--a remedy?" said Melbury.
"Under the new law, sir. A new court was established last year,
and under the new statute, twenty and twenty-one Vic., cap.
eighty-five, unmarrying is as easy as marrying. No more Acts of
Parliament necessary; no longer one law for the rich and another
for the poor. But come inside--I was just going to have a
nibleykin of rum hot--I'll explain it all to you."
The intelligence amazed Melbury, who saw little of newspapers.
And though he was a severely correct man in his habits, and had no
taste for entering a tavern with Fred Beaucock--nay, would have
been quite uninfluenced by such a character on any other matter in
the world--such fascination lay in the idea of delivering his poor
girl from bondage, that it deprived him of the critical faculty.
He could not resist the ex-lawyer's clerk, and entered the inn.
Here they sat down to the rum, which Melbury paid for as a matter
of course, Beaucock leaning back in the settle with a legal
gravity which would hardly allow him to be conscious of the
spirits before him, though they nevertheless disappeared with
How much of the exaggerated information on the then new divorce
laws which Beaucock imparted to his listener was the result of
ignorance, and how much of dupery, was never ascertained. But he
related such a plausible story of the ease with which Grace could
become a free woman that her father was irradiated with the
project; and though he scarcely wetted his lips, Melbury never
knew how he came out of the inn, or when or where he mounted his
gig to pursue his way homeward. But home he found himself, his
brain having all the way seemed to ring sonorously as a gong in
the intensity of its stir. Before he had seen Grace, he was
accidentally met by Winterborne, who found his face shining as if
he had, like the Law-giver, conversed with an angel.
He relinquished his horse, and took Winterborne by the arm to a
heap of rendlewood--as barked oak was here called--which lay under
"Giles," he said, when they had sat down upon the logs, "there's a
new law in the land! Grace can be free quite easily. I only knew
it by the merest accident. I might not have found it out for the
next ten years. She can get rid of him--d'ye hear?--get rid of
him. Think of that, my friend Giles!"
He related what he had learned of the new legal remedy. A subdued
tremulousness about the mouth was all the response that
Winterborne made; and Melbury added, "My boy, you shall have her
yet--if you want her." His feelings had gathered volume as he said
this, and the articulate sound of the old idea drowned his sight
"Are you sure--about this new law?" asked Winterborne, so
disquieted by a gigantic exultation which loomed alternately with
fearful doubt that he evaded the full acceptance of Melbury's last
Melbury said that he had no manner of doubt, for since his talk
with Beaucock it had come into his mind that he had seen some time
ago in the weekly paper an allusion to such a legal change; but,
having no interest in those desperate remedies at the moment, he
had passed it over. "But I'm not going to let the matter rest
doubtful for a single day," he continued. "I am going to London.
Beaucock will go with me, and we shall get the best advice as soon
as we possibly can. Beaucock is a thorough lawyer--nothing the
matter with him but a fiery palate. I knew him as the stay and
refuge of Sherton in knots of law at one time."
Winterborne's replies were of the vaguest. The new possibility
was almost unthinkable by him at the moment. He was what was
called at Hintock "a solid-going fellow;" he maintained his
abeyant mood, not from want of reciprocity, but from a taciturn
hesitancy, taught by life as he knew it.
"But," continued the timber-merchant, a temporary crease or two of
anxiety supplementing those already established in his forehead by
time and care, "Grace is not at all well. Nothing constitutional,
you know; but she has been in a low, nervous state ever since that
night of fright. I don't doubt but that she will be all right
soon....I wonder how she is this evening?" He rose with the words,
as if he had too long forgotten her personality in the excitement
of her previsioned career.
They had sat till the evening was beginning to dye the garden
brown, and now went towards Melbury's house, Giles a few steps in
the rear of his old friend, who was stimulated by the enthusiasm
of the moment to outstep the ordinary walking of Winterborne. He
felt shy of entering Grace's presence as her reconstituted lover--
which was how her father's manner would be sure to present him--
before definite information as to her future state was
forthcoming; it seemed too nearly like the act of those who rush
in where angels fear to tread.
A chill to counterbalance all the glowing promise of the day was
prompt enough in coming. No sooner had he followed the timber-
merchant in at the door than he heard Grammer inform him that Mrs.
Fitzpiers was still more unwell than she had been in the morning.
Old Dr. Jones being in the neighborhood they had called him in,
and he had instantly directed them to get her to bed. They were
not, however, to consider her illness serious--a feverish, nervous
attack the result of recent events, was what she was suffering
from, and she would doubtless be well in a few days.
Winterborne, therefore, did not remain, and his hope of seeing her
that evening was disappointed. Even this aggravation of her
morning condition did not greatly depress Melbury. He knew, he
said, that his daughter's constitution was sound enough. It was
only these domestic troubles that were pulling her down. Once
free she would be blooming again. Melbury diagnosed rightly, as
parents usually do.
He set out for London the next morning, Jones having paid another
visit and assured him that he might leave home without uneasiness,
especially on an errand of that sort, which would the sooner put
an end to her suspense.
The timber-merchant had been away only a day or two when it was
told in Hintock that Mr. Fitzpiers's hat had been found in the
wood. Later on in the afternoon the hat was brought to Melbury,
and, by a piece of ill-fortune, into Grace's presence. It had
doubtless lain in the wood ever since his fall from the horse, but
it looked so clean and uninjured--the summer weather and leafy
shelter having much favored its preservation--that Grace could not
believe it had remained so long concealed. A very little of fact
was enough to set her fevered fancy at work at this juncture; she
thought him still in the neighborhood; she feared his sudden
appearance; and her nervous malady developed consequences so grave
that Dr. Jones began to look serious, and the household was
It was the beginning of June, and the cuckoo at this time of the
summer scarcely ceased his cry for more than two or three hours
during the night. The bird's note, so familiar to her ears from
infancy, was now absolute torture to the poor girl. On the Friday
following the Wednesday of Melbury's departure, and the day after
the discovery of Fitzpiers's hat, the cuckoo began at two o'clock
in the morning with a sudden cry from one of Melbury's apple-
trees, not three yards from the window of Grace's room.
"Oh, he is coming!" she cried, and in her terror sprang clean from
the bed out upon the floor.
These starts and frights continued till noon; and when the doctor
had arrived and had seen her, and had talked with Mrs. Melbury, he
sat down and meditated. That ever-present terror it was
indispensable to remove from her mind at all hazards; and he
thought how this might be done.
Without saying a word to anybody in the house, or to the
disquieted Winterborne waiting in the lane below, Dr. Jones went
home and wrote to Mr. Melbury at the London address he had
obtained from his wife. The gist of his communication was that
Mrs. Fitzpiers should be assured as soon as possible that steps
were being taken to sever the bond which was becoming a torture to
her; that she would soon be free, and was even then virtually so.
"If you can say it AT ONCE it may be the means of averting much
harm," he said. "Write to herself; not to me."
On Saturday he drove over to Hintock, and assured her with
mysterious pacifications that in a day or two she might expect to
receive some assuring news. So it turned out. When Sunday
morning came there was a letter for Grace from her father. It
arrived at seven o'clock, the usual time at which the toddling
postman passed by Hintock; at eight Grace awoke, having slept an
hour or two for a wonder, and Mrs. Melbury brought up the letter.
"Can you open it yourself?" said she.
"Oh yes, yes!" said Grace, with feeble impatience. She tore the
envelope, unfolded the sheet, and read; when a creeping blush
tinctured her white neck and cheek.
Her father had exercised a bold discretion. He informed her that
she need have no further concern about Fitzpiers's return; that
she would shortly be a free woman; and therefore, if she should
desire to wed her old lover--which he trusted was the case, since
it was his own deep wish--she would be in a position to do so. In
this Melbury had not written beyond his belief. But he very much
stretched the facts in adding that the legal formalities for
dissolving her union were practically settled. The truth was that
on the arrival of the doctor's letter poor Melbury had been much
agitated, and could with difficulty be prevented by Beaucock from
returning to her bedside. What was the use of his rushing back to
Hintock? Beaucock had asked him. The only thing that could do her
any good was a breaking of the bond. Though he had not as yet had
an interview with the eminent solicitor they were about to
consult, he was on the point of seeing him; and the case was clear
enough. Thus the simple Melbury, urged by his parental alarm at
her danger by the representations of his companion, and by the
doctor's letter, had yielded, and sat down to tell her roundly
that she was virtually free.
"And you'd better write also to the gentleman," suggested
Beaucock, who, scenting notoriety and the germ of a large practice
in the case, wished to commit Melbury to it irretrievably; to
effect which he knew that nothing would be so potent as awakening
the passion of Grace for Winterborne, so that her father might not
have the heart to withdraw from his attempt to make her love
legitimate when he discovered that there were difficulties in the
The nervous, impatient Melbury was much pleased with the idea of
"starting them at once," as he called it. To put his long-delayed
reparative scheme in train had become a passion with him now. He
added to the letter addressed to his daughter a passage hinting
that she ought to begin to encourage Winterborne, lest she should
lose him altogether; and he wrote to Giles that the path was
virtually open for him at last. Life was short, he declared;
there were slips betwixt the cup and the lip; her interest in him
should be reawakened at once, that all might be ready when the
good time came for uniting them.
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