With The London Magazine Short Story Competition now open for submissions, we delved into our archives for inspiration and found this short by Thomas Hardy from May 1903. The story was accompanied by illustrations by Gordon Browne.
The traveller in school-books, who vouched in dryest tones for the fidelity to fact of the following narrative, used to add a ring of truth to it by opening with a nicety of criticism on the heroine’s personality. People were wrong, he declared, when they surmised that Baptista Trewthen was a young woman with scarcely emotions or character. There was nothing in her to love, and nothing to hate–so ran the general opinion. That she showed few positive qualities was true. The colours and tones which changing events paint on the faces of active womankind were looked for in vain upon hers. But still waters run deep; and no crisis had come in the years of her early maidenhood to demonstrate what lay hidden within her, like metal in a mine.
She was the daughter of a small farmer in St Maria’s, one of the Isles of Lyonesse beyond Off-Wessex, who had spent a large sum, as there understood, on her education, by sending her to the mainland for two years. At nineteen she was entered at the Training College for Teachers, and at twenty-one nominated to a school in the country, near Tor-upon-Sea, whither she proceeded after the Christmas examination and holidays.
The months passed by from winter to spring and summer, and Baptista applied herself to her new duties as best she could, till an uneventful year had elapsed. Then an air of abstraction pervaded her bearing as she walked to and fro, twice a day, and she showed the traits of a person who had something on her mind. A widow, by name Mrs Wace, in whose house Baptista Trewthen had been provided with a sitting-room and bedroom till the schoolhouse should be built, noticed this change in her youthful tenant’s manner, and at last ventured to press her with a few questions.
‘It has nothing to do with the place, nor with you,’ said Miss Trewthen.
‘Then it is the salary?’
‘No, nor the salary.’
‘Then it is something you have heard from home, my dear.’
Baptista was silent for a few moments. ‘It is Mr Heddegan,’ she murmured. ‘Him they used to call David Heddegan before he got his money.’
‘And who is the Mr Heddegan they used to call David?’
‘An old bachelor at Giant’s Town, St Maria’s, with no relations whatever, who lives about a stone’s throw from father’s. When I was a child he used to take me on his knee and say he’d marry me some day. Now I am a woman the jest has turned earnest, and he is anxious to do it. And father and mother say I can’t do better than have him.’
‘He’s well off?’
‘Yes–he’s the richest man we know–as a friend and neighbour.’
‘How much older did you say he was than yourself?’
‘I didn’t say. Twenty years at least.’
‘And an unpleasant man in the bargain perhaps?’
‘No–he’s not unpleasant.’
‘Well, child, all I can say is that I’d resist any such engagement if it’s not palatable to ‘ee. You are comfortable here, in my little house, I hope. All the parish like ‘ee: and I’ve never been so cheerful, since my poor husband left me to wear his wings, as I’ve been with ‘ee as my lodger.’
The schoolmistress assured her landlady that she could return the sentiment. ‘But here comes my perplexity,’ she said. ‘I don’t like keeping school. Ah, you are surprised–you didn’t suspect it. That’s because I’ve concealed my feeling. Well, I simply hate school. I don’t care for children–they are unpleasant, troublesome little things, whom nothing would delight so much as to hear that you had fallen down dead. Yet I would even put up with them if it was not for the inspector. For three months before his visit I didn’t sleep soundly. And the Committee of Council are always changing the Code, so that you don’t know what to teach, and what to leave untaught. I think father and mother are right. They say I shall never excel as a schoolmistress if I dislike the work so, and that therefore I ought to get settled by marrying Mr Heddegan. Between us two, I like him better than school; but I don’t like him quite so much as to wish to marry him.’
These conversations, once begun, were continued from day to day; till at length the young girl’s elderly friend and landlady threw in her opinion on the side of Miss Trewthen’s parents. All things considered, she declared, the uncertainty of the school, the labour, Baptista’s natural dislike for teaching, it would be as well to take what fate offered, and make the best of matters by wedding her father’s old neighbour and prosperous friend.
The Easter holidays came round, and Baptista went to spend them as usual in her native isle, going by train into Off-Wessex and crossing by packet from Pen-zephyr. When she returned in the middle of April her face wore a more settled aspect.
‘Well?’ said the expectant Mrs Wace.
‘I have agreed to have him as my husband,’ said Baptista, in an off-hand way. ‘Heaven knows if it will be for the best or not. But I have agreed to do it, and so the matter is settled.’
Mrs Wace commended her; but Baptista did not care to dwell on the subject; so that allusion to it was very infrequent between them. Nevertheless, among other things, she repeated to the widow from time to time in monosyllabic remarks that the wedding was really impending; that it was arranged for the summer, and that she had given notice of leaving the school at the August holidays. Later on she announced more specifically that her marriage was to take place immediately after her return home at the beginning of the month aforesaid.
She now corresponded regularly with Mr Heddegan. Her letters from him were seen, at least on the outside, and in part within, by Mrs Wace. Had she read more of their interiors than the occasional sentences shown her by Baptista she would have perceived that the scratchy, rusty handwriting of Miss Trewthen’s betrothed conveyed little more matter than details of their future housekeeping, and his preparations for the same, with innumerable ‘my dears’ sprinkled in disconnectedly, to show the depth of his affection without the inconveniences of syntax.
It was the end of July–dry, too dry, even for the season, the delicate green herbs and vegetables that grew in this favoured end of the kingdom tasting rather of the watering-pot than of the pure fresh moisture from the skies. Baptista’s boxes were packed, and one Saturday morning she departed by a waggonette to the station, and thence by train to Pen-zephyr, from which port she was, as usual, to cross the water immediately to her home, and become Mr Heddegan’s wife on the Wednesday of the week following.
She might have returned a week sooner. But though the wedding day had loomed so near, and the banns were out, she delayed her departure till this last moment, saying it was not necessary for her to be at home long beforehand. As Mr Heddegan was older than herself, she said, she was to be married in her ordinary summer bonnet and grey silk frock, and there were no preparations to make that had not been amply made by her parents and intended husband.
In due time, after a hot and tedious journey, she reached Pen-zephyr. She here obtained some refreshment, and then went towards the pier, where she learnt to her surprise that the little steamboat plying between the town and the islands had left at eleven o’clock; the usual hour of departure in the afternoon having been forestalled in consequence of the fogs which had for a few days prevailed towards evening, making twilight navigation dangerous.
This being Saturday, there was now no other boat till Tuesday, and it became obvious that here she would have to remain for the three days, unless her friends should think fit to rig out one of the island sailing-boats and come to fetch her–a not very likely contingency, the sea distance being nearly forty miles.
Baptista, however, had been detained in Pen-zephyr on more than one occasion before, either on account of bad weather or some such reason as the present, and she was therefore not in any personal alarm. But, as she was to be married on the following Wednesday, the delay was certainly inconvenient to a more than ordinary degree, since it would leave less than a day’s interval between her arrival and the wedding ceremony.
Apart from this awkwardness she did not much mind the accident. It was indeed curious to see how little she minded. Perhaps it would not be too much to say that, although she was going to do the critical deed of her life quite willingly, she experienced an indefinable relief at the postponement of her meeting with Heddegan. But her manner after making discovery of the hindrance was quiet and subdued, even to passivity itself; as was instanced by her having, at the moment of receiving information that the steamer had sailed, replied ‘Oh’, so coolly to the porter with her luggage, that he was almost disappointed at her lack of disappointment.
The question now was, should she return again to Mrs Wace, in the village of Lower Wessex, or wait in the town at which she had arrived. She would have preferred to go back, but the distance was too great; moreover, having left the place for good, and somewhat dramatically, to become a bride, a return, even for so short a space, would have been a trifle humiliating.
Leaving, then, her boxes at the station, her next anxiety was to secure a respectable, or rather genteel, lodging in the popular seaside resort confronting her. To this end she looked about the town, in which, though she had passed through it half-a-dozen times, she was practically a stranger.
Baptista found a room to suit her over a fruiterer’s shop; where she made herself at home, and set herself in order after her journey. An early cup of tea having revived her spirits she walked out to reconnoitre.
Being a schoolmistress she avoided looking at the schools, and having a sort of trade connection with books, she avoided looking at the booksellers; but wearying of the other shops she inspected the churches; not that for her own part she cared much about ecclesiastical edifices; but tourists looked at them, and so would she–a proceeding for which no one would have credited her with any great originality, such, for instance, as that she subsequently showed herself to possess. The churches soon oppressed her. She tried the Museum, but came out because it seemed lonely and tedious.
Yet the town and the walks in this land of strawberries, these headquarters of early English flowers and fruit, were then, as always, attractive. From the more picturesque streets she went to the town gardens, and the Pier, and the Harbour, and looked at the men at work there, loading and unloading as in the time of the Phoenicians.
‘Not Baptista? Yes, Baptista it is!’
The words were uttered behind her. Turning round she gave a start, and became confused, even agitated, for a moment. Then she said in her usual undemonstrative manner, ‘O–is it really you, Charles?’
Without speaking again at once, and with a half-smile, the newcomer glanced her over. There was much criticism, and some resentment–even temper–in his eye.
‘I am going home,’ continued she. ‘But I have missed the boat.’
He scarcely seemed to take in the meaning of this explanation, in the intensity of his critical survey. ‘Teaching still? What a fine schoolmistress you make, Baptista, I warrant!’ he said with a slight flavour of sarcasm, which was not lost upon her.
‘I know I am nothing to brag of,’ she replied. ‘That’s why I have given up.’
‘O–given up? You astonish me.’
‘I hate the profession.’
‘Perhaps that’s because I am in it.’
‘O no, it isn’t. But I am going to enter on another life altogether. I am going to be married next week to Mr David Heddegan.’
The young man–fortified as he was by a natural cynical pride and passionateness–winced at this unexpected reply, notwithstanding.
‘Who is Mr David Heddegan?’ he asked, as indifferently as lay in his power.
She informed him the bearer of the name was a general merchant of Giant’s Town, St Maria’s Island–her father’s nearest neighbour and oldest friend.
‘Then we shan’t see anything more of you on the mainland?’ inquired the schoolmaster.
‘O, I don’t know about that,’ said Miss Trewthen.
‘Here endeth the career of the belle of the boarding-school your father was foolish enough to send you to. A “general merchant’s” wife in the Lyonesse Isles. Will you sell pounds of soap and pennyworths of tin tacks, or whole bars of saponaceous matter, and great tenpenny nails?’
‘He’s not in such a small way as that!’ she almost pleaded. ‘He owns ships, though they are rather little ones!’
‘O, well, it is much the same. Come, let us walk on; it is tedious to stand still. I thought you would be a failure in education,’ he continued, when she obeyed him and strolled ahead. ‘You never showed power that way. You remind me much of some of those women who think they are sure to be great actresses if they go on the stage, because they have a pretty face, and forget that what we require is acting. But you found your mistake, didn’t you?’
‘Don’t taunt me, Charles.’ It was noticeable that the young schoolmaster’s tone caused her no anger or retaliatory passion; far otherwise: there was a tear in her eye. ‘How is it you are at Pen-zephyr?’ she inquired.
‘I don’t taunt you. I speak the truth, purely in a friendly way, as I should to anyone I wished well. Though for that matter I might have some excuse even for taunting you. Such a terrible hurry as you’ve been in. I hate a woman who is in such a hurry.’
‘How do you mean that?’
‘Why–to be somebody’s wife or other–anything’s wife rather than nobody’s. You couldn’t wait for me, O, no. Well, thank God, I’m cured of all that!’
‘How merciless you are!’ she said bitterly. ‘Wait for you? What does that mean, Charley? You never showed–anything to wait for–anything special towards me.’
‘O come, Baptista dear; come!’
‘What I mean is, nothing definite,’ she expostulated. ‘I suppose you liked me a little; but it seemed to me to be only a pastime on your part, and that you never meant to make an honourable engagement of it.’
‘There, that’s just it! You girls expect a man to mean business at the first look. No man when he first becomes interested in a woman has any definite scheme of engagement to marry her in his mind, unless he is meaning a vulgar mercenary marriage. However, I did at last mean an honourable engagement, as you call it, come to that.’
‘But you never said so, and an indefinite courtship soon injures a woman’s position and credit, sooner than you think.’
‘Baptista, I solemnly declare that in six months I should have asked you to marry me.’
She walked along in silence, looking on the ground, and appearing very uncomfortable. Presently he said, ‘Would you have waited for me if you had known?’ To this she whispered in a sorrowful whisper, ‘Yes!’
They went still farther in silence–passing along one of the beautiful walks on the outskirts of the town, yet not observant of scene or situation. Her shoulder and his were close together, and he clasped his fingers round the small of her arm–quite lightly, and without any attempt at impetus; yet the act seemed to say, ‘Now I hold you, and my will must be yours.’
Recurring to a previous question of hers he said, ‘I have merely run down here for a day or two from school near Trufal, before going off to the north for the rest of my holiday. I have seen my relations at Redrutin quite lately, so I am not going there this time. How little I thought of meeting you! How very different the circumstances would have been if, instead of parting again as we must in half-an-hour or so, possibly for ever, you had been now just going off with me, as my wife, on our honeymoon trip. Ha–ha–well–so humorous is life!’
She stopped suddenly. ‘I must go back now–this is altogether too painful, Charley! It is not at all a kind mood you are in today.’
‘I don’t want to pain you–you know I do not,’ he said more gently. ‘Only it just exasperates me–this you are going to do. I wish you would not.’
‘Marry him. There, now I have showed you my true sentiments.’
‘I must do it now,’ said she.
‘Why?’ he asked, dropping the off-hand masterful tone he had hitherto spoken in, and becoming earnest; still holding her arm, however, as if she were his chattel to be taken up or put down at will. ‘It is never too late to break off a marriage that’s distasteful to you. Now I’ll say one thing; and it is truth: I wish you would marry me instead of him, even now, at the last moment, though you have served me so badly.’
‘O, it is not possible to think of that!’ she answered hastily, shaking her head. ‘When I get home all will be prepared–it is ready even now–the things for the party, the furniture, Mr. Heddegan’s new suit, and everything. I should require the courage of a tropical lion to go home there and say I wouldn’t carry out my promise!’
‘Then go, in Heaven’s name! But there would be no necessity for you to go home and face them in that way. If we were to marry, it would have to be at once, instantly; or not at all. I should think your affection not worth the having unless you agreed to come back with me to Trufal this evening, where we could be married by licence on Monday morning. And then no Mr. David Heddegan or anybody else could get you away from me.’
‘I must go home by the Tuesday boat,’ she faltered. ‘What would they think if I did not come?’
‘You could go home by that boat just the same. All the difference would be that I should go with you. You could leave me on the quay, where I’d have a smoke, while you went and saw your father and mother privately; you could then tell them what you had done, and that I was waiting not far off; that I was a schoolmaster in a fairly good position, and a young man you had known when you were at the Training College. Then I would come boldly forward; and they would see that it could not be altered, and so you wouldn’t suffer a lifelong misery by being the wife of a wretched old gaffer you don’t like at all. Now, honestly; you do like me best, don’t you, Baptista?’
‘Then we will do as I say.’
She did not pronounce a clear affirmative. But that she consented to the novel proposition at some moment or other of that walk was apparent by what occurred a little later.
An enterprise of such pith required, indeed, less talking than consideration. The first thing they did in carrying it out was to return to the railway station, where Baptista took from her luggage a small trunk of immediate necessaries which she would in any case have required after missing the boat. That same afternoon they travelled up the line to Trufal.
Charles Stow (as his name was), despite his disdainful indifference to things, was very careful of appearances, and made the journey independently of her though in the same train. He told her where she could get board and lodgings in the city; and with merely a distant nod to her of a provisional kind, went off to his own quarters, and to see about the licence.
On Sunday she saw him in the morning across the nave of the pro-cathedral. In the afternoon they walked together in the fields, where he told her that the licence would be ready next day, and would be available the day after, when the ceremony could be performed as early after eight o’clock as they should choose.
His courtship, thus renewed after an interval of two years, was as impetuous, violent even, as it was short. The next day came and passed, and the final arrangements were made. Their agreement was to get the ceremony over as soon as they possibly could the next morning, so as to go on to Pen-zephyr at once, and reach that place in time for the boat’s departure the same day. It was in obedience to Baptista’s earnest request that Stow consented thus to make the whole journey to Lyonesse by land and water at one heat, and not break it at Pen-zephyr; she seemed to be oppressed with a dread of lingering anywhere, this great first act of disobedience to her parents once accomplished, with the weight on her mind that her home had to be convulsed by the disclosure of it. To face her difficulties over the water immediately she had created them was, however, a course more desired by Baptista than by her lover; though for once he gave way.
The next morning was bright and warm as those which had preceded it. By six o’clock it seemed nearly noon, as is often the case in that part of England in the summer season. By nine they were husband and wife. They packed up and departed by the earliest train after the service; and on the way discussed at length what she should say on meeting her parents, Charley dictating the turn of each phrase. In her anxiety they had travelled so early that when they reached Pen-zephyr they found there were nearly two hours on their hands before the steamer’s time of sailing.
Baptista was extremely reluctant to be seen promenading the streets of the watering-place with her husband till, as above stated, the household at Giant’s Town should know the unexpected course of events from her own lips; and it was just possible, if not likely, that some Lyonessian might be prowling about there, or even have come across the sea to look for her. To meet anyone to whom she was known, and to have to reply to awkward questions about the strange young man at her side before her well-framed announcement had been delivered at proper time and place, was a thing she could not contemplate with equanimity. So, instead of looking at the shops and harbour, they went along the coast a little way.
The heat of the morning was by this time intense. They clambered up on some cliffs, and while sitting there, looking around at St Michael’s Mount and other objects, Charles said to her that he thought he would run down to the beach at their feet, and take just one plunge into the sea.
Baptista did not much like the idea of being left alone; it was gloomy, she said. But he assured her he would not be gone more than a quarter of an hour at the outside, and she passively assented.
Down he went, disappeared, appeared again, and looked back. Then he again proceeded, and vanished, till, as a small waxen object, she saw him emerge from the nook that had screened him, cross the white fringe of foam, and walk into the undulating mass of blue. Once in the water he seemed less inclined to hurry than before; he remained a long time; and, unable either to appreciate his skill or criticize his want of it at that distance, she withdrew her eyes from the spot, and gazed at the still outline of St Michael’s–now beautifully toned in grey.
Her anxiety for the hour of departure, and to cope at once with the approaching incidents that she would have to manipulate as best she could, sent her into a reverie. It was now Tuesday; she would reach home in the evening–a very late time they would say; but, as the delay was a pure accident, they would deem her marriage to Mr Heddegan tomorrow still practicable. Then Charles would have to be produced from the background. It was a terrible undertaking to think of, and she almost regretted her temerity in wedding so hastily that morning. The rage of her father would be so crushing; the reproaches of her mother so bitter; and perhaps Charles would answer hotly, and perhaps cause estrangement till death. There had obviously been no alarm about her at St Maria’s, or somebody would have sailed across to inquire for her. She had, in a letter written at the beginning of the week, spoken of the hour at which she intended to leave her country schoolhouse; and from this her friends had probably perceived that by such timing she would run a risk of losing the Saturday boat. She had missed it, and as a consequence sat here on the shore as Mrs Charles Stow.
This brought her to the present, and she turned from the outline of St Michael’s Mount to look about for her husband’s form. He was, as far as she could discover, no longer in the sea. Then he was dressing. By moving a few steps she could see where his clothes lay. But Charles was not beside them.
Baptista looked back again at the water in bewilderment, as if her senses were the victim of some sleight of hand. Not a speck or spot resembling a man’s head or face showed anywhere. By this time she was alarmed, and her alarm intensified when she perceived a little beyond the scene of her husband’s bathing a small area of water, the quality of whose surface differed from that of the surrounding expanse as the coarse vegetation of some foul patch in a mead differs from the fine green of the remainder. Elsewhere it looked flexuous, here it looked vermiculated and lumpy, and her marine experiences suggested to her in a moment that two currents met and caused a turmoil at this place.
She descended as hastily as her trembling limbs would allow. The way down was terribly long, and before reaching the heap of clothes it occurred to her that, after all, it would be best to run first for help. Hastening along in a lateral direction she proceeded inland till she met a man, and soon afterwards two others. To them she exclaimed, ‘I think a gentleman who was bathing is in some danger. I cannot see him as I could. Will you please run and help him, at once, if you will be so kind?’
She did not think of turning to show them the exact spot, indicating it vaguely by the direction of her hand, and still going on her way with the idea of gaining more assistance. When she deemed, in her faintness, that she had carried the alarm far enough, she faced about and dragged herself back again. Before reaching the now dreaded spot she met one of the men.
‘We can see nothing at all, Miss,’ he declared.
Having gained the beach, she found the tide in, and no sign of Charley’s clothes. The other men whom she had besought to come had disappeared, it must have been in some other direction, for she had not met them going away. They, finding nothing, had probably thought her alarm a mere conjecture, and given up the quest.
Baptista sank down upon the stones near at hand. Where Charley had undressed was now sea. There could not be the least doubt that he was drowned, and his body sucked under by the current; while his clothes, lying within high-water mark, had probably been carried away by the rising tide.
She remained in a stupor for some minutes, till a strange sensation succeeded the aforesaid perceptions, mystifying her intelligence, and leaving her physically almost inert. With his personal disappearance, the last three days of her life with him seemed to be swallowed up, also his image, in her mind’s eye, waned curiously, receded far away, grew stranger and stranger, less and less real. Their meeting and marriage had been so sudden, unpremeditated, adventurous, that she could hardly believe that she had played her part in such a reckless drama. Of all the few hours of her life with Charles, the portion that most insisted in coming back to memory was their fortuitous encounter on the previous Saturday, and those bitter reprimands with which he had begun the attack, as it might be called, which had piqued her to an unexpected consummation.
A sort of cruelty, an imperiousness, even in his warmth, had characterized Charles Stow. As a lover he had ever been a bit of a tyrant; and it might pretty truly have been said that he had stung her into marriage with him at last. Still more alien from her life did these reflections operate to make him; and then they would be chased away by an interval of passionate weeping and mad regret. Finally, there returned upon the confused mind of the young wife the recollection that she was on her way homeward, and that the packet would sail in three-quarters of an hour.
Except the parasol in her hand, all she possessed was at the station awaiting her onward journey.
She looked in that direction; and, entering one of those undemonstrative phases so common with her, walked quietly on.
At first she made straight for the railway; but suddenly turning she went to a shop and wrote an anonymous line announcing his death by drowning to the only person she had ever heard Charles mention as a relative. Posting this stealthily, and with a fearful look around her, she seemed to acquire a terror of the late events, pursuing her way to the station as if followed by a spectre.
When she got to the office she asked for the luggage that she had left there on the Saturday as well as the trunk left on the morning just lapsed. All were put in the boat, and she herself followed. Quickly as these things had been done, the whole proceeding, nevertheless, had been almost automatic on Baptista’s part, ere she had come to any definite conclusion on her course.
Just before the bell rang she heard a conversation on the pier, which removed the last shade of doubt from her mind, if any had existed, that she was Charles Stow’s widow. The sentences were but fragmentary, but she could easily piece them out.
‘A man drowned–swam out too far–was a stranger to the place–people in boat–saw him go down–couldn’t get there in time.’
The news was little more definite than this as yet; though it may as well be stated once for all that the statement was true. Charley, with the over-confidence of his nature, had ventured out too far for his strength, and succumbed in the absence of assistance, his lifeless body being at the moment suspended in the transparent mid-depths of the bay. His clothes, however, had merely been gently lifted by the rising tide, and floated into a nook hard by, where they lay out of sight of the passers-by till a day or two after.
In ten minutes they were steaming out of the harbour for their voyage of four or five hours, at whose ending she would have to tell her strange story.
As Pen-zephyr and all its environing scenes disappeared behind Mousehole and St Clement’s Isle, Baptista’s ephemeral, meteor-like husband impressed her yet more as a fantasy. She was still in such a trance-like state that she had been an hour on the little packet-boat before she became aware of the agitating fact that Mr Heddegan was on board with her. Involuntarily she slipped from her left hand the symbol of her wifehood.
‘Hee-hee! Well, the truth is, I wouldn’t interrupt ‘ee. “I reckon she don’t see me, or won’t see me,” I said, “and what’s the hurry? She’ll see enough o’ me soon!” I hope ye be well, mee deer?’
He was a hale, well-conditioned man of about five and fifty, of the complexion common to those whose lives are passed on the bluffs and beaches of an ocean isle. He extended the four quarters of his face in a genial smile, and his hand for a grasp of the same magnitude. She gave her own in surprised docility, and he continued:
‘I couldn’t help coming across to meet ‘ee. What an unfortunate thing you missing the boat and not coming Saturday! They meant to have warned ‘ee that the time was changed, but forgot it at the last moment. The truth is that I should have informed ‘ee myself, but I was that busy finishing up a job last week, so as to have this week free, that I trusted to your father for attending to these little things. However, so plain and quiet as it is all to be, it really do not matter so much as it might otherwise have done, and I hope ye haven’t been greatly put out. Now, if you’d sooner that I should not be seen talking to ‘ee–if ‘ee feel shy at all before strangers–just say. I’ll leave ‘ee to yourself till we get home.’
‘Thank you much. I am indeed a little tired, Mr Heddegan.’
He nodded urbane acquiescence, strolled away immediately, and minutely inspected the surface of the funnel, till some female passengers of Giant’s Town tittered at what they must have thought a rebuff–for the approaching wedding was known to many on St Maria’s Island, though to nobody elsewhere. Baptista coloured at their satire, and called him back, and forced herself to commune with him in at least a mechanically friendly manner.
The opening event had been thus different from her expectation, and she had adumbrated no act to meet it. Taken aback she passively allowed circumstances to pilot her along; and so the voyage was made.
It was near dusk when they touched the pier of Giant’s Town, where several friends and neighbours stood awaiting them. Her father had a lantern in his hand. Her mother, too, was there, reproachfully glad that the delay had at last ended so simply. Mrs Trewthen and her daughter went together along the Giant’s Walk, or promenade, to the house, rather in advance of her husband and Mr Heddegan, who talked in loud tones which reached the women over their shoulders.
Some would have called Mrs Trewthen a good mother; but though well meaning she was maladroit, and her intentions missed their mark. This might have been partly attributable to the slight deafness from which she suffered. Now, as usual, the chief utterances came from her lips.
‘Ah, yes, I’m so glad, my child, that you’ve got over safe. It is all ready, and everything so well arranged, that nothing but misfortune could hinder you settling as, with God’s grace, becomes ‘ee. Close to your mother’s door a’most, ’twill be a great blessing, I’m sure; and I was very glad to find from your letters that you’d held your word sacred. That’s right–make your word your bond always. Mrs Wace seems to be a sensible woman. I hope the Lord will do for her as he’s doing for you no long time hence. And how did ‘ee get over the terrible journey from Tor-upon-Sea to Pen-zephyr? Once you’d done with the railway, of course, you seemed quite at home. Well, Baptista, conduct yourself seemly, and all will be well.’
Thus admonished, Baptista entered the house, her father and Mr Heddegan immediately at her back. Her mother had been so didactic that she had felt herself absolutely unable to broach the subjects in the centre of her mind.
The familiar room, with the dark ceiling, the well-spread table, the old chairs, had never before spoken so eloquently of the times ere she knew or had heard of Charley Stow. She went upstairs to take off her things, her mother remaining below to complete the disposition of the supper, and attend to the preparation of tomorrow’s meal, altogether composing such an array of pies, from pies of fish to pies of turnips, as was never heard of outside the Western Duchy. Baptista, once alone, sat down and did nothing; and was called before she had taken off her bonnet.
‘I’m coming,’ she cried, jumping up, and speedily disapparelling herself, brushed her hair with a few touches and went down.
Two or three of Mr Heddegan’s and her father’s friends had dropped in, and expressed their sympathy for the delay she had been subjected to. The meal was a most merry one except to Baptista. She had desired privacy, and there was none; and to break the news was already a greater difficulty than it had been at first. Everything around her, animate and inanimate, great and small, insisted that she had come home to be married; and she could not get a chance to say nay.
One or two people sang songs, as overtures to the melody of the morrow, till at length bedtime came, and they all withdrew, her mother having retired a little earlier. When Baptista found herself again alone in her bedroom the case stood as before: she had come home with much to say, and she had said nothing.
It was now growing clear even to herself that Charles being dead, she had not determination sufficient within her to break tidings which, had he been alive, would have imperatively announced themselves. And thus with the stroke of midnight came the turning of the scale; her story should remain untold. It was not that upon the whole she thought it best not to attempt to tell it; but that she could not undertake so explosive a matter. To stop the wedding now would cause a convulsion in Giant’s Town little short of volcanic. Weakened, tired, and terrified as she had been by the day’s adventures, she could not make herself the author of such a catastrophe. But how refuse Heddegan without telling? It really seemed to her as if her marriage with Mr Heddegan were about to take place as if nothing had intervened.
Morning came. The events of the previous days were cut off from her present existence by scene and sentiment more completely than ever. Charles Stow had grown to be a special being of whom, owing to his character, she entertained rather fearful than loving memory. Baptista could hear when she awoke that her parents were already moving about downstairs. But she did not rise till her mother’s rather rough voice resounded up the staircase as it had done on the preceding evening.
‘Baptista! Come, time to be stirring! The man will be here, by Heaven’s blessing, in three-quarters of an hour. He has looked in already for a minute or two–and says he’s going to the church to see if things be well forward.’
Baptista arose, looked out of the window, and took the easy course. When she emerged from the regions above she was arrayed in her new silk frock and best stockings, wearing a linen jacket over the former for breakfasting, and her common slippers over the latter, not to spoil the new ones on the rough precincts of the dwelling.
It is unnecessary to dwell at any great length on this part of the morning’s proceedings. She revealed nothing; and married Heddegan, as she had given her word to do, on that appointed August day.
Mr Heddegan forgave the coldness of his bride’s manner during and after the wedding ceremony, full well aware that there had been considerable reluctance on her part to acquiesce in this neighbourly arrangement, and, as a philosopher of long standing, holding that whatever Baptista’s attitude now, the conditions would probably be much the same six months hence as those which ruled among other married couples.
An absolutely unexpected shock was given to Baptista’s listless mind about an hour after the wedding service. They had nearly finished the midday dinner when the now husband said to her father, ‘We think of starting about two. And the breeze being so fair we shall bring up inside Pen-zephyr new pier about six at least.’
‘What–are we going to Pen-zephyr?’ said Baptista. ‘I don’t know anything of it.’
‘Didn’t you tell her?’ asked her father of Heddegan.
It transpired that, owing to the delay in her arrival, this proposal too, among other things, had in the hurry not been mentioned to her, except some time ago as a general suggestion that they would go somewhere. Heddegan had imagined that any trip would be pleasant, and one to the mainland the pleasantest of all.
She looked so distressed at the announcement that her husband willingly offered to give it up, though he had not had a holiday off the island for a whole year. Then she pondered on the inconvenience of staying at Giant’s Town, where all the inhabitants were bonded, by the circumstances of their situation, into a sort of family party, which permitted and encouraged on such occasions as these oral criticism that was apt to disturb the equanimity of newly married girls, and would especially worry Baptista in her strange situation. Hence, unexpectedly, she agreed not to disorganize her husband’s plans for the wedding jaunt, and it was settled that, as originally intended, they should proceed in a neighbour’s sailing boat to the metropolis of the district.
In this way they arrived at Pen-zephyr without difficulty or mishap. Bidding adieu to Jenkin and his man, who had sailed them over, they strolled arm in arm off the pier, Baptista silent, cold, and obedient. Heddegan had arranged to take her as far as Plymouth before their return, but to go no further than where they had landed that day. Their first business was to find an inn; and in this they had unexpected difficulty, since for some reason or other–possibly the fine weather–many of the nearest at hand were full of tourists and commercial travellers. He led her on till he reached a tavern which, though comparatively unpretending, stood in as attractive a spot as any in the town; and this, somewhat to their surprise after their previous experience, they found apparently empty. The considerate old man, thinking that Baptista was educated to artistic notions, though he himself was deficient in them, had decided that it was most desirable to have, on such an occasion as the present, an apartment with ‘a good view’ (the expression being one he had often heard in use among tourists); and he therefore asked for a favourite room on the first floor, from which a bow-window protruded, for the express purpose of affording such an outlook.
The landlady, after some hesitation, said she was sorry that particular apartment was engaged; the next one, however, or any other in the house, was unoccupied.
‘The gentleman who has the best one will give it up tomorrow, and then you can change into it,’ she added, as Mr Heddegan hesitated about taking the adjoining and less commanding one.
‘We shall be gone tomorrow, and shan’t want it,’ he said.
Wishing not to lose customers, the landlady earnestly continued that since he was bent on having the best room, perhaps the other gentleman would not object to move at once into the one they despised, since, though nothing could be seen from the window, the room was equally large.
‘Well, if he doesn’t care for a view,’ said Mr Heddegan, with the air of a highly artistic man who did.
‘O no–I am sure he doesn’t,’ she said. ‘I can promise that you shall have the room you want. If you would not object to go for a walk for half an hour, I could have it ready, and your things in it, and a nice tea laid in the bow-window by the time you come back?’
This proposal was deemed satisfactory by the fussy old tradesman, and they went out. Baptista nervously conducted him in an opposite direction to her walk of the former day in other company, showing on her wan face, had he observed it, how much she was beginning to regret her sacrificial step for mending matters that morning.
She took advantage of a moment when her husband’s back was turned to inquire casually in a shop if anything had been heard of the gentleman who was sucked down in the eddy while bathing.
The shopman said, ‘Yes, his body has been washed ashore,’ and had just handed Baptista a newspaper on which she discerned the heading, ‘A Schoolmaster drowned while bathing’, when her husband turned to join her. She might have pursued the subject without raising suspicion; but it was more than flesh and blood could do, and completing a small purchase almost ran out of the shop.
‘What is your terrible hurry, mee deer?’ said Heddegan, hastening after.
‘I don’t know–I don’t want to stay in shops,’ she gasped.
‘And we won’t,’ he said. ‘They are suffocating this weather. Let’s go back and have some tay!’
They found the much desired apartment awaiting their entry. It was a sort of combination bed and sitting-room, and the table was prettily spread with high tea in the bow-window, a bunch of flowers in the midst, and a best-parlour chair on each side. Here they shared the meal by the ruddy light of the vanishing sun. But though the view had been engaged, regardless of expense, exclusively for Baptista’s pleasure, she did not direct any keen attention out of the window. Her gaze as often fell on the floor and walls of the room as elsewhere, and on the table as much as on either, beholding nothing at all.
But there was a change. Opposite her seat was the door, upon which her eyes presently became riveted like those of a little bird upon a snake. For, on a peg at the back of the door, there hung a hat; such a hat–surely, from its peculiar make, the actual hat–that had been worn by Charles. Conviction grew to certainty when she saw a railway ticket sticking up from the band. Charles had put the ticket there–she had noticed the act.
Her teeth almost chattered; she murmured something incoherent. Her husband jumped up and said, ‘You are not well! What is it? What shall I get ‘ee?’
‘Smelling salts!’ she said, quickly and desperately; ‘at the chemist’s shop you were in just now.’
He jumped up like the anxious old man that he was, caught up his own hat from a back table, and without observing the other hastened out and downstairs.
Left alone she gazed and gazed at the back of the door, then spasmodically rang the bell. An honest-looking country maid-servant appeared in response.
‘A hat!’ murmured Baptista, pointing with her finger. ‘It does not belong to us.’
‘O yes, I’ll take it away,’ said the young woman with some hurry ‘It belongs to the other gentleman.’
She spoke with a certain awkwardness, and took the hat out of the room. Baptista had recovered her outward composure. ‘The other gentleman?’ she said. ‘Where is the other gentleman?’
‘He’s in the next room, ma’am. He removed out of this to oblige ‘ee.’
‘How can you say so? I should hear him if he were there,’ said Baptista, sufficiently recovered to argue down an apparent untruth.
‘He’s there,’ said the girl, hardily.
‘Then it is strange that he makes no noise,’ said Mrs Heddegan, convicting the girl of falsity by a look.
‘He makes no noise; but it is not strange,’ said the servant.
All at once a dread took possession of the bride’s heart, like a cold hand laid thereon; for it flashed upon her that there was a possibility of reconciling the girl’s statement with her own knowledge of facts.
‘Why does he make no noise?’ she weakly said.
The waiting-maid was silent, and looked at her questioner. ‘If I tell you, ma’am, you won’t tell missis?’ she whispered.
‘Because he’s a-lying dead!’ said the girl. ‘He’s the schoolmaster that was drowned yesterday.’
‘O!’ said the bride, covering her eyes. ‘Then he was in this room till just now?’
‘Yes,’ said the maid, thinking the young lady’s agitation natural enough. ‘And I told missis that I thought she oughtn’t to have done it, because I don’t hold it right to keep visitors so much in the dark where death’s concerned; but she said the gentleman didn’t die of anything infectious; she was a poor, honest, innkeeper’s wife, she says, who had to get her living by making hay while the sun sheened. And owing to the drowned gentleman being brought here, she said, it kept so many people away that we were empty, though all the other houses were full. So when your good man set his mind upon the room, and she would have lost good paying folk if he’d not had it, it wasn’t to be supposed, she said, that she’d let anything stand in the way. Ye won’t say that I’ve told ye, please, m’m? All the linen has been changed, and as the inquest won’t be till tomorrow, after you are gone, she thought you wouldn’t know a word of it, being strangers here.’
The returning footsteps of her husband broke off further narration. Baptista waved her hand, for she could not speak. The waiting-maid quickly withdrew, and Mr Heddegan entered with the smelling salts and other nostrums.
‘Any better?’ he questioned.
‘I don’t like the hotel,’ she exclaimed, almost simultaneously. ‘I can’t bear it–it doesn’t suit me!’
‘Is that all that’s the matter?’ he returned pettishly (this being the first time of his showing such a mood). ‘Upon my heart and life such trifling is trying to any man’s temper, Baptista! Sending me about from here to yond, and then when I come back saying ‘ee don’t like the place that I have sunk so much money and words to get for ‘ee. ‘Od dang it all, ’tis enough to–But I won’t say any more at present, mee deer, though it is just too much to expect to turn out of the house now. We shan’t get another quiet place at this time of the evening–every other inn in the town is bustling with rackety folk of one sort and t’other, while here ’tis as quiet as the grave–the country, I would say. So bide still, d’ye hear, and tomorrow we shall be out of the town altogether–as early as you like.’
The obstinacy of age had, in short, overmastered its complaisance, and the young woman said no more. The simple course of telling him that in the adjoining room lay a corpse which had lately occupied their own might, it would have seemed, have been an effectual one without further disclosure, but to allude to that subject, however it was disguised, was more than Heddegan’s young wife had strength for. Horror broke her down. In the contingency one thing only presented itself to her paralysed regard–that here she was doomed to abide, in a hideous contiguity to the dead husband and the living, and her conjecture did, in fact, bear itself out. That night she lay between the two men she had married–Heddegan on the one hand, and on the other through the partition against which the bed stood, Charles Stow.
Kindly time had withdrawn the foregoing event three days from the present of Baptista Heddegan. It was ten o’clock in the morning; she had been ill, not in an ordinary or definite sense, but in a state of cold stupefaction, from which it was difficult to arouse her so much as to say a few sentences. When questioned she had replied that she was pretty well.
Their trip, as such, had been something of a failure. They had gone on as far as Falmouth, but here he had given way to her entreaties to return home. This they could not very well do without repassing through Pen-zephyr, at which place they had now again arrived.
In the train she had seen a weekly local paper, and read there a paragraph detailing the inquest on Charles. It was added that the funeral was to take place at his native town of Redrutin on Friday.
After reading this she had shown no reluctance to enter the fatal neighbourhood of the tragedy, only stipulating that they should take their rest at a different lodging from the first; and now comparatively braced up and calm–indeed a cooler creature altogether than when last in the town, she said to David that she wanted to walk out for a while, as they had plenty of time on their hands.
‘To a shop as usual, I suppose, mee deer?’
‘Partly for shopping,’ she said. ‘And it will be best for you, dear, to stay in after trotting about so much, and have a good rest while I am gone.’
He assented; and Baptista sallied forth. As she had stated, her first visit was made to a shop, a draper’s. Without the exercise of much choice she purchased a black bonnet and veil, also a black stuff gown; a black mantle she already wore. These articles were made up into a parcel which, in spite of the saleswoman’s offers, her customer said she would take with her. Bearing it on her arm she turned to the railway, and at the station got a ticket for Redrutin.
Thus it appeared that, on her recovery from the paralysed mood of the former day, while she had resolved not to blast utterly the happiness of her present husband by revealing the history of the departed one, she had also determined to indulge a certain odd, inconsequent, feminine sentiment of decency, to the small extent to which it could do no harm to any person. At Redrutin she emerged from the railway carnage in the black attire purchased at the shop, having during the transit made the change in the empty compartment she had chosen. The other clothes were now in the bandbox and parcel. Leaving these at the cloak-room she proceeded onward, and after a wary survey reached the side of a hill whence a view of the burial ground could be obtained.
It was now a little before two o’clock. While Baptista waited a funeral procession ascended the road. Baptista hastened across, and by the time the procession entered the cemetery gates she had unobtrusively joined it.
In addition to the schoolmaster’s own relatives (not a few), the paragraph in the newspapers of his death by drowning had drawn together many neighbours, acquaintances, and onlookers.
Among them she passed unnoticed, and with a quiet step pursued the winding path to the chapel, and afterwards thence to the grave. When all was over, and the relatives and idlers had withdrawn, she stepped to the edge of the chasm. From beneath her mantle she drew a little bunch of forget-me-nots, and dropped them in upon the coffin. In a few minutes she also turned and went away from the cemetery. By five o’clock she was again in Pen-zephyr.
‘You have been a mortal long time!’ said her husband, crossly. ‘I allowed you an hour at most, mee deer.’
‘It occupied me longer,’ said she.
‘Well–I reckon it is wasting words to complain. Hang it, ye look so tired and wisht that I can’t find heart to say what I would!’
‘I am–weary and wisht, David; I am. We can get home tomorrow for certain, I hope?’
‘We can. And please God we will!’ said Mr Heddegan heartily, as if he too were weary of his brief honeymoon. ‘I must be into business again on Monday morning at latest.’
They left by the next morning steamer, and in the afternoon took up their residence in their own house at Giant’s Town.
The hour that she reached the island it was as if a material weight had been removed from Baptista’s shoulders. Her husband attributed the change to the influence of the local breezes after the hot-house atmosphere of the mainland. However that might be, settled here, a few doors from her mother’s dwelling, she recovered in no very long time much of her customary bearing, which was never very demonstrative. She accepted her position calmly, and faintly smiled when her neighbours learned to call her Mrs Heddegan, and said she seemed likely to become the leader of fashion in Giant’s Town.
Her husband was a man who had made considerably more money by trade than her father had done: and perhaps the greater profusion of surroundings at her command than she had heretofore been mistress of, was not without an effect upon her. One week, two weeks, three weeks passed; and, being pre-eminently a young woman who allowed things to drift, she did nothing whatever either to disclose or conceal traces of her first marriage; or to learn if there existed possibilities–which there undoubtedly did–by which that hasty contract might become revealed to those about her at any unexpected moment.
While yet within the first month of her marriage, and on an evening just before sunset, Baptista was standing within her garden adjoining the house, when she saw passing along the road a personage clad in a greasy black coat and battered tall hat, which, common enough in the slums of a city, had an odd appearance in St Maria’s. The tramp, as he seemed to be, marked her at once–bonnetless and unwrapped as she was her features were plainly recognizable–and with an air of friendly surprise came and leant over the wall.
‘What! don’t you know me?’ said he.
She had some dim recollection of his face, but said that she was not acquainted with him.
‘Why, your witness to be sure, ma’am. Don’t you mind the man that was mending the church-window when you and your intended husband walked up to be made one; and the clerk called me down from the ladder, and I came and did my part by writing my name and occupation?’
Baptista glanced quickly around; her husband was out of earshot. That would have been of less importance but for the fact that the wedding witnessed by this personage had not been the wedding with Mr. Heddegan, but the one on the day previous.
‘I’ve had a misfortune since then, that’s pulled me under,’ continued her friend. ‘But don’t let me damp yer wedded joy by naming the particulars. Yes, I’ve seen changes since; though ’tis but a short time ago–let me see, only a month next week, I think; for ’twere the first or second day in August.’
‘Yes–that’s when it was,’ said another man, a sailor, who had come up with a pipe in his mouth, and felt it necessary to join in (Baptista having receded to escape further speech). ‘For that was the first time I set foot in Giant’s Town; and her husband took her to him the same day.’
A dialogue then proceeded between the two men outside the wall, which Baptista could not help hearing.
‘Ay, I signed the book that made her one flesh,’ repeated the decayed glazier. ‘Where’s her good-man?’
‘About the premises somewhere; but you don’t see’em together much,’ replied the sailor in an undertone. ‘You see, he’s older than she.’
‘Older? I should never have thought it from my own observation,’ said the glazier. ‘He was a remarkably handsome man.’
‘Handsome? Well, there he is–we can see for ourselves.’
David Heddegan had, indeed, just shown himself at the upper end of the garden; and the glazier, looking in bewilderment from the husband to the wife, saw the latter turn pale.
Now that decayed glazier was a far-seeing and cunning man–too far-seeing and cunning to allow himself to thrive by simple and straightforward means–and he held his peace, till he could read more plainly the meaning of this riddle, merely added carelessly, ‘Well–marriage do alter a man, ’tis true. I should never ha’ knowed him!’
He then stared oddly at the disconcerted Baptista, and moving on to where he could again address her, asked her to do him a good turn, since he once had done the same for her. Understanding that he meant money, she handed him some, at which he thanked her, and instantly went away.
She had escaped exposure on this occasion; but the incident had been an awkward one, and should have suggested to Baptista that sooner or later the secret must leak out. As it was, she suspected that at any rate she had not heard the last of the glazier.
In a day or two, when her husband had gone to the old town on the other side of the island, there came a gentle tap at the door, and the worthy witness of her first marriage made his appearance a second time.
‘It took me hours to get to the bottom of the mystery–hours!’ he said with a gaze of deep confederacy which offended her pride very deeply. ‘But thanks to a good intellect I’ve done it. Now, ma’am, I’m not a man to tell tales, even when a tale would be so good as this. But I’m going back to the mainland again, and a little assistance would be as rain on thirsty ground.’
‘I helped you two days ago,’ began Baptista.
‘Yes–but what was that, my good lady? Not enough to pay my passage to Pen-zephyr. I came over on your account, for I thought there was a mystery somewhere. Now I must go back on my own. Mind this–‘twould be very awkward for you if your old man were to know. He’s a queer temper, though he may be fond.’
She knew as well as her visitor how awkward it would be; and the hush-money she paid was heavy that day. She had, however, the satisfaction of watching the man to the steamer, and seeing him diminish out of sight. But Baptista perceived that the system into which she had been led of purchasing silence thus was one fatal to her peace of mind, particularly if it had to be continued.
Hearing no more from the glazier she hoped the difficulty was past. But another week only had gone by, when, as she was pacing the Giant’s Walk (the name given to the promenade), she met the same personage in the company of a fat woman carrying a bundle.
‘This is the lady, my dear,’ he said to his companion. ‘This, ma’am, is my wife. We’ve come to settle in the town for a time, if so be we can find room.’
‘That you won’t do,’ said she. ‘Nobody can live here who is not privileged.’
‘I am privileged,’ said the glazier, ‘by my trade.’
Baptista went on, but in the afternoon she received a visit from the man’s wife. This honest woman began to depict, in forcible colours, the necessity for keeping up the concealment.
‘I will intercede with my husband, ma’am,’ she said. ‘He’s a true man if rightly managed; and I’ll beg him to consider your position. ‘Tis a very nice house you’ve got here,’ she added, glancing round, ‘and well worth a little sacrifice to keep it.’
The unlucky Baptista staved off the danger on this third occasion as she had done on the previous two. But she formed a resolve that, if the attack were once more to be repeated she would face a revelation–worse though that must now be than before she had attempted to purchase silence by bribes. Her tormentors, never believing her capable of acting upon such an intention, came again; but she shut the door in their faces. They retreated, muttering something; but she went to the back of the house, where David Heddegan was.
She looked at him, unconscious of all. The case was serious; she knew that well; and all the more serious in that she liked him better now than she had done at first. Yet, as she herself began to see, the secret was one that was sure to disclose itself. Her name and Charles’s stood indelibly written in the registers; and though a month only had passed as yet it was a wonder that his clandestine union with her had not already been discovered by his friends. Thus spurring herself to the inevitable, she spoke to Heddegan.
‘David, come indoors. I have something to tell you.’
He hardly regarded her at first. She had discerned that during the last week or two he had seemed preoccupied, as if some private business harassed him. She repeated her request. He replied with a sigh, ‘Yes, certainly, mee deer.’
When they had reached the sitting-room and shut the door she repeated, faintly, ‘David, I have something to tell you–a sort of tragedy I have concealed. You will hate me for having so far deceived you; but perhaps my telling you voluntarily will make you think a little better of me than you would do otherwise.’
‘Tragedy?’ he said, awakening to interest. ‘Much you can know about tragedies, mee deer, that have been in the world so short a time!’
She saw that he suspected nothing, and it made her task the harder. But on she went steadily. ‘It is about something that happened before we were married,’ she said.
‘Not a very long time before–a short time. And it is about a lover,’ she faltered.
‘I don’t much mind that,’ he said mildly. ‘In truth, I was in hopes ’twas more.’
This screwed her up to the necessary effort. ‘I met my old sweetheart. He scorned me, chid me, dared me, and I went and married him. We were coming straight here to tell you all what we had done; but he was drowned; and I thought I would say nothing about him: and I married you, David, for the sake of peace and quietness. I’ve tried to keep it from you, but have found I cannot. There–that’s the substance of it, and you can never, never forgive me, I am sure!’
She spoke desperately. But the old man, instead of turning black or blue, or slaying her in his indignation, jumped up from his chair, and began to caper around the room in quite an ecstatic emotion.
‘O, happy thing! How well it falls out!’ he exclaimed, snapping his fingers over his head. ‘Ha-ha–the knot is cut–I see a way out of my trouble–ha-ha!’
She looked at him without uttering a sound, till, as he still continued smiling joyfully, she said, ‘O–what do you mean? Is it done to torment me?’
‘No–no! O, mee deer, your story helps me out of the most heart-aching quandary a poor man ever found himself in! You see, it is this–_I’ve_ got a tragedy, too; and unless you had had one to tell, I could never have seen my way to tell mine!’
‘What is yours–what is it?’ she asked, with altogether a new view of things.
‘Well–it is a bouncer; mine is a bouncer!’ said he, looking on the ground and wiping his eyes.
‘Not worse than mine?’
‘Well–that depends upon how you look at it. Yours had to do with the past alone; and I don’t mind it. You see, we’ve been married a month, and it don’t jar upon me as it would if we’d only been married a day or two. Now mine refers to past, present, and future; so that–‘
‘Past, present, and future!’ she murmured. ‘It never occurred to me that you had a tragedy too.’
‘But I have!’ he said, shaking his head. ‘In fact, four.’
‘Then tell ’em!’ cried the young woman.
‘I will–I will. But be considerate, I beg ‘ee, mee deer. Well–I wasn’t a bachelor when I married ‘ee, any more than you were a spinster. Just as you was a widow-woman, I was a widow-man.’
‘Ah!’ said she, with some surprise. ‘But is that all?–then we are nicely balanced,’ she added, relieved.
‘No–it is not all. There’s the point. I am not only a widower.’
‘I am a widower with four tragedies–that is to say, four strapping girls–the eldest taller than you. Don’t ‘ee look so struck–dumb-like! It fell out in this way. I knew the poor woman, their mother, in Pen-zephyr for some years; and–to cut a long story short–I privately married her at last, just before she died. I kept the matter secret, but it is getting known among the people here by degrees. I’ve long felt for the children–that it is my duty to have them here, and do something for them. I have not had courage to break it to ‘ee, but I’ve seen lately that it would soon come to your ears, and that hev worried me.’
‘Are they educated?’ said the ex-schoolmistress.
‘No. I am sorry to say they have been much neglected; in truth, they can hardly read. And so I thought that by marrying a young schoolmistress I should get some one in the house who could teach ’em, and bring ’em into genteel condition, all for nothing. You see, they are growed up too tall to be sent to school.’
‘O, mercy!’ she almost moaned. ‘Four great girls to teach the rudiments to, and have always in the house with me spelling over their books; and I hate teaching, it kills me. I am bitterly punished–I am, I am!’
‘You’ll get used to ’em, mee deer, and the balance of secrets–mine against yours–will comfort your heart with a sense of justice. I could send for ’em this week very well–and I will! In faith, I could send this very day. Baptista, you have relieved me of all my difficulty!’
Thus the interview ended, so far as this matter was concerned. Baptista was too stupefied to say more, and when she went away to her room she wept from very mortification at Mr Heddegan’s duplicity. Education, the one thing she abhorred; the shame of it to delude a young wife so!
The next meal came round. As they sat, Baptista would not suffer her eyes to turn towards him. He did not attempt to intrude upon her reserve, but every now and then looked under the table and chuckled with satisfaction at the aspect of affairs. ‘How very well matched we be!’ he said, comfortably.
Next day, when the steamer came in, Baptista saw her husband rush down to meet it; and soon after there appeared at her door four tall, hipless, shoulderless girls, dwindling in height and size from the eldest to the youngest, like a row of Pan pipes; at the head of them standing Heddegan. He smiled pleasantly through the grey fringe of his whiskers and beard, and turning to the girls said, ‘Now come forrard, and shake hands properly with your stepmother.’
Thus she made their acquaintance, and he went out, leaving them together. On examination the poor girls turned out to be not only plain-looking, which she could have forgiven, but to have such a lamentably meagre intellectual equipment as to be hopelessly inadequate as companions. Even the eldest, almost her own age, could only read with difficulty words of two syllables; and taste in dress was beyond their comprehension. In the long vista of future years she saw nothing but dreary drudgery at her detested old trade without prospect of reward.
She went about quite despairing during the next few days–an unpromising, unfortunate mood for a woman who had not been married six weeks. From her parents she concealed everything. They had been amongst the few acquaintances of Heddegan who knew nothing of his secret, and were indignant enough when they saw such a ready-made household foisted upon their only child. But she would not support them in their remonstrances.
‘No, you don’t yet know all,’ she said.
Thus Baptista had sense enough to see the retributive fairness of this issue. For some time, whenever conversation arose between her and Heddegan, which was not often, she always said, ‘I am miserable, and you know it. Yet I don’t wish things to be otherwise.’
But one day when he asked, ‘How do you like ’em now?’ her answer was unexpected. ‘Much better than I did,’ she said, quietly. ‘I may like them very much some day.’
This was the beginning of a serener season for the chastened spirit of Baptista Heddegan. She had, in truth, discovered, underneath the crust of uncouthness and meagre articulation which was due to their Troglodytean existence, that her unwelcomed daughters had natures that were unselfish almost to sublimity. The harsh discipline accorded to their young lives before their mother’s wrong had been righted, had operated less to crush them than to lift them above all personal ambition. They considered the world and its contents in a purely objective way, and their own lot seemed only to affect them as that of certain human beings among the rest, whose troubles they knew rather than suffered.
This was such an entirely new way of regarding life to a woman of Baptista’s nature, that her attention, from being first arrested by it, became deeply interested. By imperceptible pulses her heart expanded in sympathy with theirs. The sentences of her tragi-comedy, her life, confused till now, became clearer daily. That in humanity, as exemplified by these girls, there was nothing to dislike, but infinitely much to pity, she learnt with the lapse of each week in their company. She grew to like the girls of unpromising exterior, and from liking she got to love them; till they formed an unexpected point of junction between her own and her husband’s interests, generating a sterling friendship at least, between a pair in whose existence there had threatened to be neither friendship nor love.
Transcribed by Alice Troy-Donovan