The Return of the Native/Book 1/Chapter 3
Chapter 3: The Custom of the Country
Had a looker-on been posted in the immediate vicinity of the barrow, he would have learned that these persons were boys and men of the neighbouring hamlets. Each, as he ascended the barrow, had been heavily laden with furze faggots, carried upon the shoulder by means of a long stake sharpened at each end for impaling them easily--two in front and two behind. They came from a part of the heath a quarter of a mile to the rear, where furze almost exclusively prevailed as a product.
Every individual was so involved in furze by his method of carrying the faggots that he appeared like a bush on legs till he had thrown them down. The party had marched in trail, like a travelling flock of sheep; that is to say, the strongest first, the weak and young behind.
The loads were all laid together, and a pyramid of furze thirty feet in circumference now occupied the crown of the tumulus, which was known as Rainbarrow for many miles round. Some made themselves busy with matches, and in selecting the driest tufts of furze, others in loosening the bramble bonds which held the faggots together. Others, again, while this was in progress, lifted their eyes and swept the vast expanse of country commanded by their position, now lying nearly obliterated by shade. In the valleys of the heath nothing save its own wild face was visible at any time of day; but this spot commanded a horizon enclosing a tract of far extent, and in many cases lying beyond the heath country. None of its features could be seen now, but the whole made itself felt as a vague stretch of remoteness.
While the men and lads were building the pile, a change took place in the mass of shade which denoted the distant landscape. Red suns and tufts of fire one by one began to arise, flecking the whole country round. They were the bonfires of other parishes and hamlets that were engaged in the same sort of commemoration. Some were distant, and stood in a dense atmosphere, so that bundles of pale straw-like beams radiated around them in the shape of a fan. Some were large and near, glowing scarlet-red from the shade, like wounds in a black hide. Some were Maenades, with winy faces and blown hair. These tinctured the silent bosom of the clouds above them and lit up their ephemeral caves, which seemed thenceforth to become scalding caldrons. Perhaps as many as thirty bonfires could be counted within the whole bounds of the district; and as the hour may be told on a clock-face when the figures themselves are invisible, so did the men recognize the locality of each fire by its angle and direction, though nothing of the scenery could be viewed.
The first tall flame from Rainbarrow sprang into the sky, attracting all eyes that had been fixed on the distant conflagrations back to their own attempt in the same kind. The cheerful blaze streaked the inner surface of the human circle--now increased by other stragglers, male and female--with its own gold livery, and even overlaid the dark turf around with a lively luminousness, which softened off into obscurity where the barrow rounded downwards out of sight. It showed the barrow to be the segment of a globe, as perfect as on the day when it was thrown up, even the little ditch remaining from which the earth was dug. Not a plough had ever disturbed a grain of that stubborn soil. In the heath's barrenness to the farmer lay its fertility to the historian. There had been no obliteration, because there had been no tending.
It seemed as if the bonfire-makers were standing in some radiant upper story of the world, detached from and independent of the dark stretches below. The heath down there was now a vast abyss, and no longer a continuation of what they stood on; for their eyes, adapted to the blaze, could see nothing of the deeps beyond its influence. Occasionally, it is true, a more vigorous flare than usual from their faggots sent darting lights like aides-de-camp down the inclines to some distant bush, pool, or patch of white sand, kindling these to replies of the same colour, till all was lost in darkness again. Then the whole black phenomenon beneath represented Limbo as viewed from the brink by the sublime Florentine in his vision, and the muttered articulations of the wind in the hollows were as complaints and petitions from the "souls of mighty worth" suspended therein.
It was as if these men and boys had suddenly dived into past ages, and fetched therefrom an hour and deed which had before been familiar with this spot. The ashes of the original British pyre which blazed from that summit lay fresh and undisturbed in the barrow beneath their tread. The flames from funeral piles long ago kindled there had shone down upon the lowlands as these were shining now. Festival fires to Thor and Woden had followed on the same ground and duly had their day. Indeed, it is pretty well known that such blazes as this the heathmen were now enjoying are rather the lineal descendants from jumbled Druidical rites and Saxon ceremonies than the invention of popular feeling about Gunpowder Plot.
Moreover to light a fire is the instinctive and resistant act of man when, at the winter ingress, the curfew is sounded throughout Nature. It indicates a spontaneous, Promethean rebelliousness against that fiat that this recurrent season shall bring foul times, cold darkness, misery and death. Black chaos comes, and the fettered gods of the earth say, Let there be light.
The brilliant lights and sooty shades which struggled upon the skin and clothes of the persons standing round caused their lineaments and general contours to be drawn with Dureresque vigour and dash. Yet the permanent moral expression of each face it was impossible to discover, for as the nimble flames towered, nodded, and swooped through the surrounding air, the blots of shade and flakes of light upon the countenances of the group changed shape and position endlessly. All was unstable; quivering as leaves, evanescent as lightning. Shadowy eye-sockets, deep as those of a death's head, suddenly turned into pits of lustre: a lantern-jaw was cavernous, then it was shining; wrinkles were emphasized to ravines, or obliterated entirely by a changed ray. Nostrils were dark wells; sinews in old necks were gilt mouldings; things with no particular polish on them were glazed; bright objects, such as the tip of a furze-hook one of the men carried, were as glass; eyeballs glowed like little lanterns. Those whom Nature had depicted as merely quaint became grotesque, the grotesque became preternatural; for all was in extremity.
Hence it may be that the face of an old man, who had like others been called to the heights by the rising flames, was not really the mere nose and chin that it appeared to be, but an appreciable quantity of human countenance. He stood complacently sunning himself in the heat. With a speaker, or stake, he tossed the outlying scraps of fuel into the conflagration, looking at the midst of the pile, occasionally lifting his eyes to measure the height of the flame, or to follow the great sparks which rose with it and sailed away into darkness. The beaming sight, and the penetrating warmth, seemed to breed in him a cumulative cheerfulness, which soon amounted to delight. With his stick in his hand he began to jig a private minuet, a bunch of copper seals shining and swinging like a pendulum from under his waistcoat: he also began to sing, in the voice of a bee up a flue--
"The king' call'd down' his no-bles all', By one', by two', by three'; Earl Mar'-shal, I'll' go shrive'-the queen', And thou' shalt wend' with me'.
"A boon', a boon', quoth Earl' Mar-shal', And fell' on his bend'-ded knee', That what'-so-e'er' the queen' shall say', No harm' there-of' may be'."
Want of breath prevented a continuance of the song; and the breakdown attracted the attention of a firm- standing man of middle age, who kept each corner of his crescent-shaped mouth rigorously drawn back into his cheek, as if to do away with any suspicion of mirthfulness which might erroneously have attached to him.
"A fair stave, Grandfer Cantle; but I am afeard 'tis too much for the mouldy weasand of such a old man as you," he said to the wrinkled reveller. "Dostn't wish th' wast three sixes again, Grandfer, as you was when you first learnt to sing it?"
"Hey?" said Grandfer Cantle, stopping in his dance.
"Dostn't wish wast young again, I say? There's a hole in thy poor bellows nowadays seemingly."
"But there's good art in me? If I couldn't make a little wind go a long ways I should seem no younger than the most aged man, should I, Timothy?"
"And how about the new-married folks down there at the Quiet Woman Inn?" the other inquired, pointing towards a dim light in the direction of the distant highway, but considerably apart from where the reddleman was at that moment resting. "What's the rights of the matter about 'em? You ought to know, being an understanding man."
"But a little rakish, hey? I own to it. Master Cantle is that, or he's nothing. Yet 'tis a gay fault, neigbbour Fairway, that age will cure."
"I heard that they were coming home tonight. By this time they must have come. What besides?"
"The next thing is for us to go and wish 'em joy, I suppose?"
"No? Now, I thought we must. I must, or 'twould be very unlike me--the first in every spree that's going!
"Do thou' put on' a fri'-ar's coat', And I'll' put on' a-no'-ther, And we' will to' Queen Ele'anor go', Like Fri'ar and' his bro'ther.
I met Mis'ess Yeobright, the young bride's aunt, last night, and she told me that her son Clym was coming home a' Christmas. Wonderful clever, 'a believe--ah, I should like to have all that's under that young man's hair. Well, then, I spoke to her in my well-known merry way, and she said, 'O that what's shaped so venerable should talk like a fool!'--that's what she said to me. I don't care for her, be jowned if I do, and so I told her. 'Be jowned if I care for 'ee,' I said. I had her there--hey?"
"I rather think she had you," said Fairway.
"No," said Grandfer Cantle, his countenance slightly flagging. "'Tisn't so bad as that with me?"
"Seemingly 'tis, however, is it because of the wedding that Clym is coming home a' Christmas--to make a new arrangement because his mother is now left in the house alone?"
"Yes, yes--that's it. But, Timothy, hearken to me," said the Grandfer earnestly. "Though known as such a joker, I be an understanding man if you catch me serious, and I am serious now. I can tell 'ee lots about the married couple. Yes, this morning at six o'clock they went up the country to do the job, and neither vell nor mark have been seen of 'em since, though I reckon that this afternoon has brought 'em home again man and woman--wife, that is. Isn't it spoke like a man, Timothy, and wasn't Mis'ess Yeobright wrong about me?"
"Yes, it will do. I didn't know the two had walked together since last fall, when her aunt forbad the banns. How long has this new set-to been in mangling then? Do you know, Humphrey?"
"Yes, how long?" said Grandfer Cantle smartly, likewise turning to Humphrey. "I ask that question."
"Ever since her aunt altered her mind, and said she might have the man after all," replied Humphrey, without removing his eyes from the fire. He was a somewhat solemn young fellow, and carried the hook and leather gloves of a furze-cutter, his legs, by reason of that occupation, being sheathed in bulging leggings as stiff as the Philistine's greaves of brass. "That's why they went away to be married, I count. You see, after kicking up such a nunny-watch and forbidding the banns 'twould have made Mis'ess Yeobright seem foolish-like to have a banging wedding in the same parish all as if she'd never gainsaid it."
"Exactly--seem foolish-like; and that's very bad for the poor things that be so, though I only guess as much, to be sure," said Grandfer Cantle, still strenuously preserving a sensible bearing and mien.
"Ah, well, I was at church that day," said Fairway, "which was a very curious thing to happen."
"If 'twasn't my name's Simple," said the Grandfer emphatically. "I ha'n't been there to-year; and now the winter is a-coming on I won't say I shall."
"I ha'n't been these three years," said Humphrey; "for I'm so dead sleepy of a Sunday; and 'tis so terrible far to get there; and when you do get there 'tis such a mortal poor chance that you'll be chose for up above, when so many bain't, that I bide at home and don't go at all."
"I not only happened to be there," said Fairway, with a fresh collection of emphasis, "but I was sitting in the same pew as Mis'ess Yeobright. And though you may not see it as such, it fairly made my blood run cold to hear her. Yes, it is a curious thing; but it made my blood run cold, for I was close at her elbow." The speaker looked round upon the bystanders, now drawing closer to hear him, with his lips gathered tighter than ever in the rigorousness of his descriptive moderation.
"'Tis a serious job to have things happen to 'ee there," said a woman behind.
"'Ye are to declare it,' was the parson's words," Fairway continued. "And then up stood a woman at my side--a-touching of me. 'Well, be damned if there isn't Mis'ess Yeobright a-standing up,' I said to myself. Yes, neighbours, though I was in the temple of prayer that's what I said. 'Tis against my conscience to curse and swear in company, and I hope any woman here will overlook it. Still what I did say I did say, and 'twould be a lie if I didn't own it."
"So 'twould, neighbour Fairway."
"'Be damned if there isn't Mis'ess Yeobright a-standing up,' I said," the narrator repeated, giving out the bad word with the same passionless severity of face as before, which proved how entirely necessity and not gusto had to do with the iteration. "And the next thing I heard was, 'I forbid the banns,' from her. 'I'll speak to you after the service,' said the parson, in quite a homely way--yes, turning all at once into a common man no holier than you or I. Ah, her face was pale! Maybe you can call to mind that monument in Weatherbury church--the cross-legged soldier that have had his arm knocked away by the schoolchildren? Well, he would about have matched that woman's face, when she said, 'I forbid the banns.'"
The audience cleared their throats and tossed a few stalks into the fire, not because these deeds were urgent, but to give themselves time to weigh the moral of the story.
"I'm sure when I heard they'd been forbid I felt as glad as if anybody had gied me sixpence," said an earnest voice--that of Olly Dowden, a woman who lived by making heath brooms, or besoms. Her nature was to be civil to enemies as well as to friends, and grateful to all the world for letting her remain alive.
"And now the maid have married him just the same," said Humphrey.
"After that Mis'ess Yeobright came round and was quite agreeable," Fairway resumed, with an unheeding air, to show that his words were no appendage to Humphrey's, but the result of independent reflection.
"Supposing they were ashamed, I don't see why they shouldn't have done it here-right," said a wide-spread woman whose stays creaked like shoes whenever she stooped or turned. "'Tis well to call the neighbours together and to hae a good racket once now and then; and it may as well be when there's a wedding as at tide-times. I don't care for close ways."
"Ah, now, you'd hardly believe it, but I don't care for gay weddings," said Timothy Fairway, his eyes again travelling round. "I hardly blame Thomasin Yeobright and neighbour Wildeve for doing it quiet, if I must own it. A wedding at home means five and six-handed reels by the hour; and they do a man's legs no good when he's over forty."
"True. Once at the woman's house you can hardly say nay to being one in a jig, knowing all the time that you be expected to make yourself worth your victuals."
"You be bound to dance at Christmas because 'tis the time o' year; you must dance at weddings because 'tis the time o' life. At christenings folk will even smuggle in a reel or two, if 'tis no further on than the first or second chiel. And this is not naming the songs you've got to sing....For my part I like a good hearty funeral as well as anything. You've as splendid victuals and drink as at other parties, and even better. And it don't wear your legs to stumps in talking over a poor fellow's ways as it do to stand up in hornpipes."
"Nine folks out of ten would own 'twas going too far to dance then, I suppose?" suggested Grandfer Cantle.
"'Tis the only sort of party a staid man can feel safe at after the mug have been round a few times."
"Well, I can't understand a quiet ladylike little body like Tamsin Yeobright caring to be married in such a mean way," said Susan Nunsuch, the wide woman, who preferred the original subject. "'Tis worse than the poorest do. And I shouldn't have cared about the man, though some may say he's good-looking."
"To give him his due he's a clever, learned fellow in his way--a'most as clever as Clym Yeobright used to be. He was brought up to better things than keeping the Quiet Woman. An engineer--that's what the man was, as we know; but he threw away his chance, and so 'a took a public house to live. His learning was no use to him at all."
"Very often the case," said Olly, the besom-maker. "And yet how people do strive after it and get it! The class of folk that couldn't use to make a round O to save their bones from the pit can write their names now without a sputter of the pen, oftentimes without a single blot--what do I say?--why, almost without a desk to lean their stomachs and elbows upon."
"True--'tis amazing what a polish the world have been brought to," said Humphrey.
"Why, afore I went a soldier in the Bang-up Locals (as we was called), in the year four," chimed in Grandfer Cantle brightly, "I didn't know no more what the world was like than the commonest man among ye. And now, jown it all, I won't say what I bain't fit for, hey?"
"Couldst sign the book, no doubt," said Fairway, "if wast young enough to join hands with a woman again, like Wildeve and Mis'ess Tamsin, which is more than Humph there could do, for he follows his father in learning. Ah, Humph, well I can mind when I was married how I zid thy father's mark staring me in the face as I went to put down my name. He and your mother were the couple married just afore we were and there stood they father's cross with arms stretched out like a great banging scarecrow. What a terrible black cross that was--thy father's very likeness in en! To save my soul I couldn't help laughing when I zid en, though all the time I was as hot as dog-days, what with the marrying, and what with the woman a-hanging to me, and what with Jack Changley and a lot more chaps grinning at me through church window. But the next moment a strawmote would have knocked me down, for I called to mind that if thy father and mother had had high words once, they'd been at it twenty times since they'd been man and wife, and I zid myself as the next poor stunpoll to get into the same mess....Ah--well, what a day 'twas!"
"Wildeve is older than Tamsin Yeobright by a good-few summers. A pretty maid too she is. A young woman with a home must be a fool to tear her smock for a man like that."
The speaker, a peat- or turf-cutter, who had newly joined the group, carried across his shoulder the singular heart-shaped spade of large dimensions used in that species of labour, and its well-whetted edge gleamed like a silver bow in the beams of the fire.
"A hundred maidens would have had him if he'd asked 'em," said the wide woman.
"Didst ever know a man, neighbour, that no woman at all would marry?" inquired Humphrey.
"I never did," said the turf-cutter.
"Nor I," said another.
"Nor I," said Grandfer Cantle.
"Well, now, I did once," said Timothy Fairway, adding more firmness to one of his legs. "I did know of such a man. But only once, mind." He gave his throat a thorough rake round, as if it were the duty of every person not to be mistaken through thickness of voice. "Yes, I knew of such a man," he said.
"And what ghastly gallicrow might the poor fellow have been like, Master Fairway?" asked the turf-cutter.
"Well, 'a was neither a deaf man, nor a dumb man, nor a blind man. What 'a was I don't say."
"Is he known in these parts?" said Olly Dowden.
"Hardly," said Timothy; "but I name no name....Come, keep the fire up there, youngsters."
"Whatever is Christian Cantle's teeth a-chattering for?" said a boy from amid the smoke and shades on the other side of the blaze. "Be ye a-cold, Christian?"
A thin jibbering voice was heard to reply, "No, not at all."
"Come forward, Christian, and show yourself. I didn't know you were here," said Fairway, with a humane look across towards that quarter.
Thus requested, a faltering man, with reedy hair, no shoulders, and a great quantity of wrist and ankle beyond his clothes, advanced a step or two by his own will, and was pushed by the will of others half a dozen steps more. He was Grandfer Cantle's youngest son.
"What be ye quaking for, Christian?" said the turf- cutter kindly.
"I'm the man."
"The man no woman will marry."
"The deuce you be!" said Timothy Fairway, enlarging his gaze to cover Christian's whole surface and a great deal more, Grandfer Cantle meanwhile staring as a hen stares at the duck she has hatched.
"Yes, I be he; and it makes me afeard," said Christian. "D'ye think 'twill hurt me? I shall always say I don't care, and swear to it, though I do care all the while."
"Well, be damned if this isn't the queerest start ever I know'd," said Mr. Fairway. "I didn't mean you at all. There's another in the country, then! Why did ye reveal yer misfortune, Christian?"
"'Twas to be if 'twas, I suppose. I can't help it, can I?" He turned upon them his painfully circular eyes, surrounded by concentric lines like targets.
"No, that's true. But 'tis a melancholy thing, and my blood ran cold when you spoke, for I felt there were two poor fellows where I had thought only one. 'Tis a sad thing for ye, Christian. How'st know the women won't hae thee?"
"I've asked 'em."
"Sure I should never have thought you had the face. Well, and what did the last one say to ye? Nothing that can't be got over, perhaps, after all?"
"'Get out of my sight, you slack-twisted, slim-looking maphrotight fool,' was the woman's words to me."
"Not encouraging, I own," said Fairway. "'Get out of my sight, you slack-twisted, slim-looking maphrotight fool,' is rather a hard way of saying No. But even that might be overcome by time and patience, so as to let a few grey hairs show themselves in the hussy's head. How old be you, Christian?"
"Thirty-one last tatie-digging, Mister Fairway."
"Not a boy--not a boy. Still there's hope yet."
"That's my age by baptism, because that's put down in the great book of the Judgment that they keep in church vestry; but Mother told me I was born some time afore I was christened."
"But she couldn't tell when, to save her life, except that there was no moon."
"No moon--that's bad. Hey, neighbours, that's bad for him!"
"Yes, 'tis bad," said Grandfer Cantle, shaking his head.
"Mother know'd 'twas no moon, for she asked another woman that had an almanac, as she did whenever a boy was born to her, because of the saying, 'No moon, no man,' which made her afeard every man-child she had. Do ye really think it serious, Mister Fairway, that there was no moon?"
"Yes. 'No moon, no man.' 'Tis one of the truest sayings ever spit out. The boy never comes to anything that's born at new moon. A bad job for thee, Christian, that you should have showed your nose then of all days in the month."
"I suppose the moon was terrible full when you were born?" said Christian, with a look of hopeless admiration at Fairway.
"Well, 'a was not new," Mr. Fairway replied, with a disinterested gaze.
"I'd sooner go without drink at Lammas-tide than be a man of no moon," continued Christian, in the same shattered recitative. "'Tis said I be only the rames of a man, and no good for my race at all; and I suppose that's the cause o't."
"Ay," said Grandfer Cantle, somewhat subdued in spirit; "and yet his mother cried for scores of hours when 'a was a boy, for fear he should outgrow hisself and go for a soldier."
"Well, there's many just as bad as he." said Fairway.
"Wethers must live their time as well as other sheep, poor soul."
"So perhaps I shall rub on? Ought I to be afeared o' nights, Master Fairway?"
"You'll have to lie alone all your life; and 'tis not to married couples but to single sleepers that a ghost shows himself when 'a do come. One has been seen lately, too. A very strange one."
"No--don't talk about it if 'tis agreeable of ye not to! 'Twill make my skin crawl when I think of it in bed alone. But you will--ah, you will, I know, Timothy; and I shall dream all night o't! A very strange one? What sort of a spirit did ye mean when ye said, a very strange one, Timothy?--no, no--don't tell me."
"I don't half believe in spirits myself. But I think it ghostly enough--what I was told. 'Twas a little boy that zid it."
"What was it like?--no, don't--"
"A red one. Yes, most ghosts be white; but this is as if it had been dipped in blood."
Christian drew a deep breath without letting it expand his body, and Humphrey said, "Where has it been seen?"
"Not exactly here; but in this same heth. But 'tisn't a thing to talk about. What do ye say," continued Fairway in brisker tones, and turning upon them as if the idea had not been Grandfer Cantle's--"what do you say to giving the new man and wife a bit of a song tonight afore we go to bed--being their wedding-day? When folks are just married 'tis as well to look glad o't, since looking sorry won't unjoin 'em. I am no drinker, as we know, but when the womenfolk and youngsters have gone home we can drop down across to the Quiet Woman, and strike up a ballet in front of the married folks' door. 'Twill please the young wife, and that's what I should like to do, for many's the skinful I've had at her hands when she lived with her aunt at Blooms-End."
"Hey? And so we will!" said Grandfer Cantle, turning so briskly that his copper seals swung extravagantly. "I'm as dry as a kex with biding up here in the wind, and I haven't seen the colour of drink since nammet- time today. 'Tis said that the last brew at the Woman is very pretty drinking. And, neighbours, if we should be a little late in the finishing, why, tomorrow's Sunday, and we can sleep it off?"
"Grandfer Cantle! you take things very careless for an old man," said the wide woman.
"I take things careless; I do--too careless to please the women! Klk! I'll sing the 'Jovial Crew,' or any other song, when a weak old man would cry his eyes out. Jown it; I am up for anything.
"The king' look'd o'-ver his left' shoul-der', And a grim' look look'-ed hee', Earl Mar'-shal, he said', but for' my oath' Or hang'-ed thou' shouldst bee'."
"Well, that's what we'll do," said Fairway. "We'll give 'em a song, an' it please the Lord. What's the good of Thomasin's cousin Clym a-coming home after the deed's done? He should have come afore, if so be he wanted to stop it, and marry her himself."
"Perhaps he's coming to bide with his mother a little time, as she must feel lonely now the maid's gone."
"Now, 'tis very odd, but I never feel lonely--no, not at all," said Grandfer Cantle. "I am as brave in the nighttime as a' admiral!"
The bonfire was by this time beginning to sink low, for the fuel had not been of that substantial sort which can support a blaze long. Most of the other fires within the wide horizon were also dwindling weak. Attentive observation of their brightness, colour, and length of existence would have revealed the quality of the material burnt, and through that, to some extent the natural produce of the district in which each bonfire was situate. The clear, kingly effulgence that had characterized the majority expressed a heath and furze country like their own, which in one direction extended an unlimited number of miles; the rapid flares and extinctions at other points of the compass showed the lightest of fuel--straw, beanstalks, and the usual waste from arable land. The most enduring of all--steady unaltering eyes like Planets--signified wood, such as hazel-branches, thorn-faggots, and stout billets. Fires of the last-mentioned materials were rare, and though comparatively small in magnitude beside the transient blazes, now began to get the best of them by mere long continuance. The great ones had perished, but these remained. They occupied the remotest visible positions--sky-backed summits rising out of rich coppice and plantation districts to the north, where the soil was different, and heath foreign and strange.
Save one; and this was the nearest of any, the moon of the whole shining throng. It lay in a direction precisely opposite to that of the little window in the vale below. Its nearness was such that, notwithstanding its actual smallness, its glow infinitely transcended theirs.
This quiet eye had attracted attention from time to time; and when their own fire had become sunken and dim it attracted more; some even of the wood fires more recently lighted had reached their decline, but no change was perceptible here.
"To be sure, how near that fire is!" said Fairway. "Seemingly. I can see a fellow of some sort walking round it. Little and good must be said of that fire, surely."
"I can throw a stone there," said the boy.
"And so can I!" said Grandfer Cantle.
"No, no, you can't, my sonnies. That fire is not much less than a mile off, for all that 'a seems so near."
"'Tis in the heath, but no furze," said the turf-cutter.
"'Tis cleft-wood, that's what 'tis," said Timothy Fairway. "Nothing would burn like that except clean timber. And 'tis on the knap afore the old captain's house at Mistover. Such a queer mortal as that man is! To have a little fire inside your own bank and ditch, that nobody else may enjoy it or come anigh it! And what a zany an old chap must be, to light a bonfire when there's no youngsters to please."
"Cap'n Vye has been for a long walk today, and is quite tired out," said Grandfer Cantle, "so 'tisn't likely to be he."
"And he would hardly afford good fuel like that," said the wide woman.
"Then it must be his granddaughter," said Fairway. "Not that a body of her age can want a fire much."
"She is very strange in her ways, living up there by herself, and such things please her," said Susan.
"She's a well-favoured maid enough," said Humphrey the furze-cutter, "especially when she's got one of her dandy gowns on."
"That's true," said Fairway. "Well, let her bonfire burn an't will. Ours is well-nigh out by the look o't."
"How dark 'tis now the fire's gone down!" said Christian Cantle, looking behind him with his hare eyes. "Don't ye think we'd better get home-along, neighbours? The heth isn't haunted, I know; but we'd better get home....Ah, what was that?"
"Only the wind," said the turf-cutter.
"I don't think Fifth-of-Novembers ought to be kept up by night except in towns. It should be by day in outstep, ill-accounted places like this!"
"Nonsense, Christian. Lift up your spirits like a man! Susy, dear, you and I will have a jig--hey, my honey?--before 'tis quite too dark to see how well-favoured you be still, though so many summers have passed since your husband, a son of a witch, snapped you up from me."
This was addressed to Susan Nunsuch; and the next circumstance of which the beholders were conscious was a vision of the matron's broad form whisking off towards the space whereon the fire had been kindled. She was lifted bodily by Mr. Fairway's arm, which had been flung round her waist before she had become aware of his intention. The site of the fire was now merely a circle of ashes flecked with red embers and sparks, the furze having burnt completely away. Once within the circle he whirled her round and round in a dance. She was a woman noisily constructed; in addition to her enclosing framework of whalebone and lath, she wore pattens summer and winter, in wet weather and in dry, to preserve her boots from wear; and when Fairway began to jump about with her, the clicking of the pattens, the creaking of the stays, and her screams of surprise, formed a very audible concert.
"I'll crack thy numskull for thee, you mandy chap!" said Mrs. Nunsuch, as she helplessly danced round with him, her feet playing like drumsticks among the sparks. "My ankles were all in a fever before, from walking through that prickly furze, and now you must make 'em worse with these vlankers!"
The vagary of Timothy Fairway was infectious. The turf-cutter seized old Olly Dowden, and, somewhat more gently, poussetted with her likewise. The young men were not slow to imitate the example of their elders, and seized the maids; Grandfer Cantle and his stick jigged in the form of a three-legged object among the rest; and in half a minute all that could be seen on Rainbarrow was a whirling of dark shapes amid a boiling confusion of sparks, which leapt around the dancers as high as their waists. The chief noises were women's shrill cries, men's laughter, Susan's stays and pattens, Olly Dowden's "heu-heu-heu!" and the strumming of the wind upon the furze-bushes, which formed a kind of tune to the demoniac measure they trod. Christian alone stood aloof, uneasily rocking himself as he murmured, "They ought not to do it--how the vlankers do fly! 'tis tempting the Wicked one, 'tis."
"What was that?" said one of the lads, stopping.
"Ah--where?" said Christian, hastily closing up to the rest.
The dancers all lessened their speed.
"'Twas behind you, Christian, that I heard it--down here."
"Yes--'tis behind me!" Christian said. "Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, bless the bed that I lie on; four angels guard--"
"Hold your tongue. What is it?" said Fairway.
"Hoi-i-i-i!" cried a voice from the darkness.
"Halloo-o-o-o!" said Fairway.
"Is there any cart track up across here to Mis'ess Yeobright's, of Blooms-End?" came to them in the same voice, as a long, slim indistinct figure approached the barrow.
"Ought we not to run home as hard as we can, neighbours, as 'tis getting late?" said Christian. "Not run away from one another, you know; run close together, I mean." "Scrape up a few stray locks of furze, and make a blaze, so that we can see who the man is," said Fairway.
When the flame arose it revealed a young man in tight raiment, and red from top to toe. "Is there a track across here to Mis'ess Yeobright's house?" he repeated.
"Ay--keep along the path down there."
"I mean a way two horses and a van can travel over?"
"Well, yes; you can get up the vale below here with time. The track is rough, but if you've got a light your horses may pick along wi' care. Have ye brought your cart far up, neighbour reddleman?"
"I've left it in the bottom, about half a mile back, I stepped on in front to make sure of the way, as 'tis night-time, and I han't been here for so long."
"Oh, well you can get up," said Fairway. "What a turn it did give me when I saw him!" he added to the whole group, the reddleman included. "Lord's sake, I thought, whatever fiery mommet is this come to trouble us? No slight to your looks, reddleman, for ye bain't bad-looking in the groundwork, though the finish is queer. My meaning is just to say how curious I felt. I half thought it 'twas the devil or the red ghost the boy told of."
"It gied me a turn likewise," said Susan Nunsuch, "for I had a dream last night of a death's head."
"Don't ye talk o't no more," said Christian. "If he had a handkerchief over his head he'd look for all the world like the Devil in the picture of the Temptation."
"Well, thank you for telling me," said the young reddleman, smiling faintly. "And good night t'ye all."
He withdrew from their sight down the barrow.
"I fancy I've seen that young man's face before," said Humphrey. "But where, or how, or what his name is, I don't know."
The reddleman had not been gone more than a few minutes when another person approached the partially revived bonfire. It proved to be a well-known and respected widow of the neighbourhood, of a standing which can only be expressed by the word genteel. Her face, encompassed by the blackness of the receding heath, showed whitely, and with-out half-lights, like a cameo.
She was a woman of middle-age, with well-formed features of the type usually found where perspicacity is the chief quality enthroned within. At moments she seemed to be regarding issues from a Nebo denied to others around. She had something of an estranged mien; the solitude exhaled from the heath was concentrated in this face that had risen from it. The air with which she looked at the heathmen betokened a certain unconcern at their presence, or at what might be their opinions of her for walking in that lonely spot at such an hour, thus indirectly implying that in some respect or other they were not up to her level. The explanation lay in the fact that though her husband had been a small farmer she herself was a curate's daughter, who had once dreamt of doing better things.
Persons with any weight of character carry, like planets, their atmospheres along with them in their orbits; and the matron who entered now upon the scene could, and usually did, bring her own tone into a company. Her normal manner among the heathfolk had that reticence which results from the consciousness of superior communicative power. But the effect of coming into society and light after lonely wandering in darkness is a sociability in the comer above its usual pitch, expressed in the features even more than in words.
"Why, 'tis Mis'ess Yeobright," said Fairway. "Mis'ess Yeobright, not ten minutes ago a man was here asking for you--a reddleman."
"What did he want?" said she.
"He didn't tell us."
"Something to sell, I suppose; what it can be I am at a loss to understand."
"I am glad to hear that your son Mr. Clym is coming home at Christmas, ma'am," said Sam, the turf-cutter. "What a dog he used to be for bonfires!"
"Yes. I believe he is coming," she said.
"He must be a fine fellow by this time," said Fairway.
"He is a man now," she replied quietly.
"'Tis very lonesome for 'ee in the heth tonight, mis'ess," said Christian, coming from the seclusion he had hitherto maintained. "Mind you don't get lost. Egdon Heth is a bad place to get lost in, and the winds do huffle queerer tonight than ever I heard 'em afore. Them that know Egdon best have been pixy-led here at times."
"Is that you, Christian?" said Mrs. Yeobright. "What made you hide away from me?"
"'Twas that I didn't know you in this light, mis'ess; and being a man of the mournfullest make, I was scared a little, that's all. Oftentimes if you could see how terrible down I get in my mind, 'twould make 'ee quite nervous for fear I should die by my hand."
"You don't take after your father," said Mrs. Yeobright, looking towards the fire, where Grandfer Cantle, with some want of originality, was dancing by himself among the sparks, as the others had done before.
"Now, Grandfer," said Timothy Fairway, "we are ashamed of ye. A reverent old patriarch man as you be--seventy if a day--to go hornpiping like that by yourself!"
"A harrowing old man, Mis'ess Yeobright," said Christian despondingly. "I wouldn't live with him a week, so playward as he is, if I could get away."
"'Twould be more seemly in ye to stand still and welcome Mis'ess Yeobright, and you the venerablest here, Grandfer Cantle," said the besom-woman.
"Faith, and so it would," said the reveller checking himself repentantly. "I've such a bad memory, Mis'ess Yeobright, that I forget how I'm looked up to by the rest of 'em. My spirits must be wonderful good, you'll say? But not always. 'Tis a weight upon a man to be looked up to as commander, and I often feel it."
"I am sorry to stop the talk," said Mrs. Yeobright. "But I must be leaving you now. I was passing down the Anglebury Road, towards my niece's new home, who is returning tonight with her husband; and seeing the bonfire and hearing Olly's voice among the rest I came up here to learn what was going on. I should like her to walk with me, as her way is mine."
"Ay, sure, ma'am, I'm just thinking of moving," said Olly.
"Why, you'll be safe to meet the reddleman that I told ye of," said Fairway. "He's only gone back to get his van. We heard that your niece and her husband were coming straight home as soon as they were married, and we are going down there shortly, to give 'em a song o' welcome."
"Thank you indeed," said Mrs. Yeobright.
"But we shall take a shorter cut through the furze than you can go with long clothes; so we won't trouble you to wait."
"Very well--are you ready, Olly?"
"Yes, ma'am. And there's a light shining from your niece's window, see. It will help to keep us in the path."
She indicated the faint light at the bottom of the valley which Fairway had pointed out; and the two women descended the tumulus.