A Tragedy Of Two Ambitions
by Thomas Hardy
The shouts of the village-boys came in at the window, accompanied by broken laughter from loungers at the inn-door; but the brothers Halborough worked on.
They were sitting in a bedroom of the master-millwright’s house, engaged in the untutored reading of Greek and Latin. It was no tale of Homeric blows and knocks, Argonautic voyaging, or Theban family woe that inflamed their imaginations and spurred them onward. They were plodding away at the Greek Testament, immersed in a chapter of the idiomatic and difficult Epistle to the Hebrews.
The Dog-day sun in its decline reached the low ceiling with slanting sides, and the shadows of the great goat’s-willow swayed and interchanged upon the walls like a spectral army manoeuvring. The open casement which admitted the remoter sounds now brought the voice of some one close at hand. It was their sister, a pretty girl of fourteen, who stood in the court below.
‘I can see the tops of your heads! What’s the use of staying up there? I like you not to go out with the street-boys; but do come and play with me!’
They treated her as an inadequate interlocutor, and put her off with some slight word. She went away disappointed. Presently there was a dull noise of heavy footsteps at the side of the house, and one of the brothers sat up. ‘I fancy I hear him coming,’ he murmured, his eyes on the window.
A man in the light drab clothes of an old-fashioned country tradesman approached from round the corner, reeling as he came. The elder son flushed with anger, rose from his books, and descended the stairs. The younger sat on, till, after the lapse of a few minutes, his brother re-entered the room.
‘Did Rosa see him?’
‘What have you done with him?’
‘He’s in the straw-shed. I got him in with some trouble, and he has fallen asleep. I thought this would be the explanation of his absence! No stones dressed for Miller Kench, the great wheel of the saw-mills waiting for new float-boards, even the poor folk not able to get their waggons wheeled.’
‘What is the use of poring over this!’ said the younger, shutting up Donnegan’s Lexicon with a slap. ‘O if we had only been able to keep mother’s nine hundred pounds, what we could have done!’
‘How well she had estimated the sum necessary! Four hundred and fifty each, she thought. And I have no doubt that we could have done it on that, with care.’
This loss of the nine hundred pounds was the sharp thorn of their crown. It was a sum which their mother had amassed with great exertion and self-denial, by adding to a chance legacy such other small amounts as she could lay hands on from time to time; and she had intended with the hoard to indulge the dear wish of her heart—that of sending her sons, Joshua and Cornelius, to one of the Universities, having been informed that from four hundred to four hundred and fifty each might carry them through their terms with such great economy as she knew she could trust them to practise. But she had died a year or two before this time, worn out by too keen a strain towards these ends; and the money, coming unreservedly into the hands of their father, had been nearly dissipated. With its exhaustion went all opportunity and hope of a university degree for the sons.
‘It drives me mad when I think of it,’ said Joshua, the elder. ‘And here we work and work in our own bungling way, and the utmost we can hope for is a term of years as national schoolmasters, and possible admission to a Theological college, and ordination as despised licentiates.’
The anger of the elder was reflected as simple sadness in the face of the other. ‘We can preach the Gospel as well without a hood on our surplices as with one,’ he said with feeble consolation.
‘Preach the Gospel—true,’ said Joshua with a slight pursing of mouth. ‘But we can’t rise!’
‘Let us make the best of it, and grind on.’
The other was silent, and they drearily bent over their books again.
The cause of all this gloom, the millwright Halborough, now snoring in the shed, had been a thriving master-machinist, notwithstanding his free and careless disposition, till a taste for a more than adequate quantity of strong liquor took hold of him; since when his habits had interfered with his business sadly. Already millers went elsewhere for their gear, and only one set of hands was now kept going, though there were formerly two. Already he found a difficulty in meeting his men at the week’s end, and though they had been reduced in number there was barely enough work to do for those who remained.
The sun dropped lower and vanished, the shouts of the village children ceased to resound, darkness cloaked the students’ bedroom, and all the scene outwardly breathed peace. None knew of the fevered youthful ambitions that throbbed in two breasts within the quiet creeper-covered walls of the millwright’s house.
In a few months the brothers left the village of their birth to enter themselves as students in a training college for schoolmasters; first having placed their young sister Rosa under as efficient a tuition at a fashionable watering-place as the means at their disposal could command.
A man in semi-clerical dress was walking along the road which led from the railway-station into a provincial town. As he walked he read persistently, only looking up once now and then to see that he was keeping on the foot track and to avoid other passengers. At those moments, whoever had known the former students at the millwright’s would have perceived that one of them, Joshua Halborough, was the peripatetic reader here.
What had been simple force in the youth’s face was energized judgment in the man’s. His character was gradually writing itself out in his countenance. That he was watching his own career with deeper and deeper interest, that he continually ‘heard his days before him,’ and cared to hear little else, might have been hazarded from what was seen there. His ambitions were, in truth, passionate, yet controlled; so that the germs of many more plans than ever blossomed to maturity had place in him; and forward visions were kept purposely in twilight, to avoid distraction.
Events so far had been encouraging. Shortly after assuming the mastership of his first school he had obtained an introduction to the Bishop of a diocese far from his native county, who had looked upon him as a promising young man and taken him in hand. He was now in the second year of his residence at the theological college of the cathedral-town, and would soon be presented for ordination.
He entered the town, turned into a back street, and then into a yard, keeping his book before him till he set foot under the arch of the latter place. Round the arch was written ‘National School,’ and the stonework of the jambs was worn away as nothing but boys and the waves of ocean will wear it. He was soon amid the sing-song accents of the scholars.
His brother Cornelius, who was the schoolmaster here, laid down the pointer with which he was directing attention to the Capes of Europe, and came forward.
‘That’s his brother Jos!’ whispered one of the sixth standard boys. ‘He’s going to be a pa’son, he’s now at college.’
‘Corney is going to be one too, when he’s saved enough money,’ said another.
After greeting his brother, whom he had not seen for several months, the junior began to explain his system of teaching geography.
But Halborough the elder took no interest in the subject. ‘How about your own studies?’ he asked. ‘Did you get the books I sent?’
Cornelius had received them, and he related what he was doing.
‘Mind you work in the morning. What time do you get up?’
The younger replied: ‘Half-past five.’
‘Half-past four is not a minute too soon this time of the year. There is no time like the morning for construing. I don’t know why, but when I feel even too dreary to read a novel I can translate—there is something mechanical about it I suppose. Now, Cornelius, you are rather behindhand, and have some heavy reading before you if you mean to get out of this next Christmas.’
‘I am afraid I have.’
‘We must soon sound the Bishop. I am sure you will get a title without difficulty when he has heard all. The sub-dean, the principal of my college, says that the best plan will be for you to come there when his lordship is present at an examination, and he’ll get you a personal interview with him. Mind you make a good impression upon him. I found in my case that that was everything and doctrine almost nothing. You’ll do for a deacon, Corney, if not for a priest.’
The younger remained thoughtful. ‘Have you heard from Rosa lately?’ he asked; ‘I had a letter this morning.’
‘Yes. The little minx writes rather too often. She is homesick—though Brussels must be an attractive place enough. But she must make the most of her time over there. I thought a year would be enough for her, after that high-class school at Sandbourne, but I have decided to give her two, and make a good job of it, expensive as the establishment is.’
Their two rather harsh faces had softened directly they began to speak of their sister, whom they loved more ambitiously than they loved themselves.
‘But where is the money to come from, Joshua?’
‘I have already got it.’ He looked round, and finding that some boys were near withdrew a few steps. ‘I have borrowed it at five per cent. from the farmer who used to occupy the farm next our field. You remember him.’
‘But about paying him?’
‘I shall pay him by degrees out of my stipend. No, Cornelius, it was no use to do the thing by halves. She promises to be a most attractive, not to say beautiful, girl. I have seen that for years; and if her face is not her fortune, her face and her brains together will be, if I observe and contrive aright. That she should be, every inch of her, an accomplished and refined woman, was indispensable for the fulfilment of her destiny, and for moving onwards and upwards with us; and she’ll do it, you will see. I’d half starve myself rather than take her away from that school now.’
They looked round the school they were in. To Cornelius it was natural and familiar enough, but to Joshua, with his limited human sympathies, who had just dropped in from a superior sort of place, the sight jarred unpleasantly, as being that of something he had left behind. ‘I shall be glad when you are out of this,’ he said, ‘and in your pulpit, and well through your first sermon.’
‘You may as well say inducted into my fat living, while you are about it.’
‘Ah, well—don’t think lightly of the Church. There’s a fine work for any man of energy in the Church, as you’ll find,’ he said fervidly. ‘Torrents of infidelity to be stemmed, new views of old subjects to be expounded, truths in spirit to be substituted for truths in the letter . . . ’ He lapsed into reverie with the vision of his career, persuading himself that it was ardour for Christianity which spurred him on, and not pride of place. He had shouldered a body of doctrine, and was prepared to defend it tooth and nail, solely for the honour and glory that warriors win.
‘If the Church is elastic, and stretches to the shape of the time, she’ll last, I suppose,’ said Cornelius. ‘If not—. Only think, I bought a copy of Paley’s Evidences, best edition, broad margins, excellent preservation, at a bookstall the other day for—ninepence; and I thought that at this rate Christianity must be in rather a bad way.’
‘No, no!’ said the other almost, angrily. ‘It only shows that such defences are no longer necessary. Men’s eyes can see the truth without extraneous assistance. Besides, we are in for Christianity, and must stick to her whether or no. I am just now going right through Pusey’s Library of the Fathers.’
‘You’ll be a bishop, Joshua, before you have done!’
‘Ah!’ said the other bitterly, shaking his head. ‘Perhaps I might have been—I might have been! But where is my D.D. or LL.D.; and how be a bishop without that kind of appendage? Archbishop Tillotson was the son of a Sowerby clothier, but he was sent to Clare College. To hail Oxford or Cambridge as alma mater is not for me—for us! My God! when I think of what we should have been—what fair promise has been blighted by that cursed, worthless—’
‘Hush, hush! . . . But I feel it, too, as much as you. I have seen it more forcibly lately. You would have obtained your degree long before this time—possibly fellowship—and I should have been on my way to mine.’
‘Don’t talk of it,’ said the other. ‘We must do the best we can.’
They looked out of the window sadly, through the dusty panes, so high up that only the sky was visible. By degrees the haunting trouble loomed again, and Cornelius broke the silence with a whisper: ‘He has called on me!’
The living pulses died on Joshua’s face, which grew arid as a clinker. ‘When was that?’ he asked quickly.
‘How did he get here—so many miles?’
‘Came by railway. He came to ask for money.’
‘He says he will call on you.’
Joshua replied resignedly. The theme of their conversation spoilt his buoyancy for that afternoon. He returned in the evening, Cornelius accompanying him to the station; but he did not read in the train which took him back to the Fountall Theological College, as he had done on the way out. That ineradicable trouble still remained as a squalid spot in the expanse of his life. He sat with the other students in the cathedral choir next day; and the recollection of the trouble obscured the purple splendour thrown by the panes upon the floor.
It was afternoon. All was as still in the Close as a cathedral-green can be between the Sunday services, and the incessant cawing of the rooks was the only sound. Joshua Halborough had finished his ascetic lunch, and had gone into the library, where he stood for a few moments looking out of the large window facing the green. He saw walking slowly across it a man in a fustian coat and a battered white hat with a much-ruffled nap, having upon his arm a tall gipsy-woman wearing long brass earrings. The man was staring quizzically at the west front of the cathedral, and Halborough recognized in him the form and features of his father. Who the woman was he knew not. Almost as soon as Joshua became conscious of these things, the sub-dean, who was also the principal of the college, and of whom the young man stood in more awe than of the Bishop himself, emerged from the gate and entered a path across the Close. The pair met the dignitary, and to Joshua’s horror his father turned and addressed the sub-dean.
What passed between them he could not tell. But as he stood in a cold sweat he saw his father place his hand familiarly on the sub-dean’s shoulder; the shrinking response of the latter, and his quick withdrawal, told his feeling. The woman seemed to say nothing, but when the sub-dean had passed by they came on towards the college gate.
Halborough flew along the corridor and out at a side door, so as to intercept them before they could reach the front entrance, for which they were making. He caught them behind a clump of laurel.
‘By Jerry, here’s the very chap! Well, you’re a fine fellow, Jos, never to send your father as much as a twist o’ baccy on such an occasion, and to leave him to travel all these miles to find ye out!’
‘First, who is this?’ said Joshua Halborough with pale dignity, waving his hand towards the buxom woman with the great earrings.
‘Dammy, the mis’ess! Your step-mother! Didn’t you know I’d married? She helped me home from market one night, and we came to terms, and struck the bargain. Didn’t we, Selinar?’
‘Oi, by the great Lord an’ we did!’ simpered the lady.
‘Well, what sort of a place is this you are living in?’ asked the millwright. ‘A kind of house-of-correction, apparently?’
Joshua listened abstractedly, his features set to resignation. Sick at heart he was going to ask them if they were in want of any necessary, any meal, when his father cut him short by saying, ‘Why, we’ve called to ask ye to come round and take pot-luck with us at the Cock-and-Bottle, where we’ve put up for the day, on our way to see mis’ess’s friends at Binegar Fair, where they’ll be lying under canvas for a night or two. As for the victuals at the Cock I can’t testify to ’em at all; but for the drink, they’ve the rarest drop of Old Tom that I’ve tasted for many a year.’
‘Thanks; but I am a teetotaller; and I have lunched,’ said Joshua, who could fully believe his father’s testimony to the gin, from the odour of his breath. ‘You see we have to observe regular habits here; and I couldn’t be seen at the Cock-and-Bottle just now.’
‘O dammy, then don’t come, your reverence. Perhaps you won’t mind standing treat for those who can be seen there?’
‘Not a penny,’ said the younger firmly. ‘You’ve had enough already.’
‘Thank you for nothing. By the bye, who was that spindle-legged, shoe-buckled parson feller we met by now? He seemed to think we should poison him!’
Joshua remarked coldly that it was the principal of his college, guardedly inquiring, ‘Did you tell him whom you were come to see?’
His father did not reply. He and his strapping gipsy wife—if she were his wife—stayed no longer, and disappeared in the direction of the High Street. Joshua Halborough went back to the library. Determined as was his nature, he wept hot tears upon the books, and was immeasurably more wretched that afternoon than the unwelcome millwright. In the evening he sat down and wrote a letter to his brother, in which, after stating what had happened, and expatiating upon this new disgrace in the gipsy wife, he propounded a plan for raising money sufficient to induce the couple to emigrate to Canada. ‘It is our only chance,’ he said. ‘The case as it stands is maddening. For a successful painter, sculptor, musician, author, who takes society by storm, it is no drawback, it is sometimes even a romantic recommendation, to hail from outcasts and profligates. But for a clergyman of the Church of England! Cornelius, it is fatal! To succeed in the Church, people must believe in you, first of all, as a gentleman, secondly as a man of means, thirdly as a scholar, fourthly as a preacher, fifthly, perhaps, as a Christian,—but always first as a gentleman, with all their heart and soul and strength. I would have faced the fact of being a small machinist’s son, and have taken my chance, if he’d been in any sense respectable and decent. The essence of Christianity is humility, and by the help of God I would have brazened it out. But this terrible vagabondage and disreputable connection! If he does not accept my terms and leave the country, it will extinguish us and kill me. For how can we live, and relinquish our high aim, and bring down our dear sister Rosa to the level of a gipsy’s step-daughter?’
There was excitement in the parish of Narrobourne one day. The congregation had just come out from morning service, and the whole conversation was of the new curate, Mr. Halborough, who had officiated for the first time, in the absence of the rector.
Never before had the feeling of the villagers approached a level which could be called excitement on such a matter as this. The droning which had been the rule in that quiet old place for a century seemed ended at last. They repeated the text to each other as a refrain: ‘O Lord, be thou my helper!’ Not within living memory till to-day had the subject of the sermon formed the topic of conversation from the church door to church-yard gate, to the exclusion of personal remarks on those who had been present, and on the week’s news in general.
The thrilling periods of the preacher hung about their minds all that day. The parish being steeped in indifferentism, it happened that when the youths and maidens, middle-aged and old people, who had attended church that morning, recurred as by a fascination to what Halborough had said, they did so more or less indirectly, and even with the subterfuge of a light laugh that was not real, so great was their shyness under the novelty of their sensations.
What was more curious than that these unconventional villagers should have been excited by a preacher of a new school after forty years of familiarity with the old hand who had had charge of their souls, was the effect of Halborough’s address upon the occupants of the manor-house pew, including the owner of the estate. These thought they knew how to discount the mere sensational sermon, how to minimize flash oratory to its bare proportions; but they had yielded like the rest of the assembly to the charm of the newcomer.
Mr. Fellmer, the landowner, was a young widower, whose mother, still in the prime of life, had returned to her old position in the family mansion since the death of her son’s wife in the year after her marriage, at the birth of a fragile little girl. From the date of his loss to the present time, Fellmer had led an inactive existence in the seclusion of the parish; a lack of motive seemed to leave him listless. He had gladly reinstated his mother in the gloomy house, and his main occupation now lay in stewarding his estate, which was not large. Mrs. Fellmer, who had sat beside him under Halborough this morning, was a cheerful, straightforward woman, who did her marketing and her alms-giving in person, was fond of old-fashioned flowers, and walked about the village on very wet days visiting the parishioners. These, the only two great ones of Narrobourne, were impressed by Joshua’s eloquence as much as the cottagers.
Halborough had been briefly introduced to them on his arrival some days before, and, their interest being kindled, they waited a few moments till he came out of the vestry, to walk down the churchyard-path with him. Mrs. Fellmer spoke warmly of the sermon, of the good fortune of the parish in his advent, and hoped he had found comfortable quarters.
Halborough, faintly flushing, said that he had obtained very fair lodgings in the roomy house of a farmer, whom he named.
She feared he would find it very lonely, especially in the evenings, and hoped they would see a good deal of him. When would he dine with them? Could he not come that day—it must be so dull for him the first Sunday evening in country lodgings?
Halborough replied that it would give him much pleasure, but that he feared he must decline. ‘I am not altogether alone,’ he said. ‘My sister, who has just returned from Brussels, and who felt, as you do, that I should be rather dismal by myself, has accompanied me hither to stay a few days till she has put my rooms in order and set me going. She was too fatigued to come to church, and is waiting for me now at the farm.’
‘Oh, but bring your sister—that will be still better! I shall be delighted to know her. How I wish I had been aware! Do tell her, please, that we had no idea of her presence.’
Halborough assured Mrs. Fellmer that he would certainly bear the message; but as to her coming he was not so sure. The real truth was, however, that the matter would be decided by him, Rosa having an almost filial respect for his wishes. But he was uncertain as to the state of her wardrobe, and had determined that she should not enter the manor-house at a disadvantage that evening, when there would probably be plenty of opportunities in the future of her doing so becomingly.
He walked to the farm in long strides. This, then, was the outcome of his first morning’s work as curate here. Things had gone fairly well with him. He had been ordained; he was in a comfortable parish, where he would exercise almost sole supervision, the rector being infirm. He had made a deep impression at starting, and the absence of a hood seemed to have done him no harm. Moreover, by considerable persuasion and payment, his father and the dark woman had been shipped off to Canada, where they were not likely to interfere greatly with his interests.
Rosa came out to meet him. ‘Ah! you should have gone to church like a good girl,’ he said.
‘Yes—I wished I had afterwards. But I do so hate church as a rule that even your preaching was underestimated in my mind. It was too bad of me!’
The girl who spoke thus playfully was fair, tall, and sylph-like, in a muslin dress, and with just the coquettish désinvolture which an English girl brings home from abroad, and loses again after a few months of native life. Joshua was the reverse of playful; the world was too important a concern for him to indulge in light moods. He told her in decided, practical phraseology of the invitation.
‘Now, Rosa, we must go—that’s settled—if you’ve a dress that can be made fit to wear all on the hop like this. You didn’t, of course, think of bringing an evening dress to such an out-of-the-way place?’
But Rosa had come from the wrong city to be caught napping in those matters. ‘Yes, I did,’ said she. ‘One never knows what may turn up.’
‘Well done! Then off we go at seven.’
The evening drew on, and at dusk they started on foot, Rosa pulling up the edge of her skirt under her cloak out of the way of the dews, so that it formed a great wind-bag all round her, and carrying her satin shoes under her arm. Joshua would not let her wait till she got indoors before changing them, as she proposed, but insisted on her performing that operation under a tree, so that they might enter as if they had not walked. He was nervously formal about such trifles, while Rosa took the whole proceeding—walk, dressing, dinner, and all—as a pastime. To Joshua it was a serious step in life.
A more unexpected kind of person for a curate’s sister was never presented at a dinner. The surprise of Mrs. Fellmer was unconcealed. She had looked forward to a Dorcas, or Martha, or Rhoda at the outside, and a shade of misgiving crossed her face. It was possible that, had the young lady accompanied her brother to church, there would have been no dining at Narrobourne House that day.
Not so with the young widower, her son. He resembled a sleeper who had awaked in a summer noon expecting to find it only dawn. He could scarcely help stretching his arms and yawning in their faces, so strong was his sense of being suddenly aroused to an unforeseen thing. When they had sat down to table he at first talked to Rosa somewhat with the air of a ruler in the land; but the woman lurking in the acquaintance soon brought him to his level, and the girl from Brussels saw him looking at her mouth, her hands, her contour, as if he could not quite comprehend how they got created: then he dropped into the more satisfactory stage which discerns no particulars.
He talked but little; she said much. The homeliness of the Fellmers, to her view, though they were regarded with such awe down here, quite disembarrassed her. The squire had become so unpractised, had dropped so far into the shade during the last year or so of his life, that he had almost forgotten what the world contained till this evening reminded him. His mother, after her first moments of doubt, appeared to think that he must be left to his own guidance, and gave her attention to Joshua.
With all his foresight and doggedness of aim, the result of that dinner exceeded Halborough’s expectations. In weaving his ambitions he had viewed his sister Rosa as a slight, bright thing to be helped into notice by his abilities; but it now began to dawn upon him that the physical gifts of nature to her might do more for them both than nature’s intellectual gifts to himself. While he was patiently boring the tunnel Rosa seemed about to fly over the mountain.
He wrote the next day to his brother, now occupying his own old rooms in the theological college, telling him exultingly of the unanticipated début of Rosa at the manor-house. The next post brought him a reply of congratulation, dashed with the counteracting intelligence that his father did not like Canada—that his wife had deserted him, which made him feel so dreary that he thought of returning home.
In his recent satisfaction at his own successes Joshua Halborough had well-nigh forgotten his chronic trouble—latterly screened by distance. But it now returned upon him; he saw more in this brief announcement than his brother seemed to see. It was the cloud no bigger than a man’s hand.
The following December, a day or two before Christmas, Mrs. Fellmer and her son were walking up and down the broad gravel path which bordered the east front of the house. Till within the last half-hour the morning had been a drizzling one, and they had just emerged for a short turn before luncheon.
‘You see, dear mother,’ the son was saying, ‘it is the peculiarity of my position which makes her appear to me in such a desirable light. When you consider how I have been crippled at starting, how my life has been maimed; that I feel anything like publicity distasteful, that I have ye no political ambition, and that my chief aim and hope lie in the education of the little thing Annie has left me, you must see how desirable a wife like Miss Halborough would be, to prevent my becoming a mere vegetable.’
‘If you adore her, I suppose you must have her!’ replied his mother with dry indirectness. ‘But you’ll find that she will not be content to live on here as you do, giving her whole mind to a young child.’
‘That’s just where we differ. Her very disqualification, that of being a nobody, as you call it, is her recommendation in my eyes. Her lack of influential connections limits her ambition. From what I know of her, a life in this place is all that she would wish for. She would never care to go outside the park-gates if it were necessary to stay within.’
‘Being in love with her, Albert, and meaning to marry her, you invent your practical reasons to make the case respectable. Well, do as you will; I have no authority over you, so why should you consult me? You mean to propose on this very occasion, no doubt. Don’t you, now?’
‘By no means. I am merely revolving the idea in my mind. If on further acquaintance she turns out to be as good as she has hitherto seemed—well, I shall see. Admit, now, that you like her.’
‘I readily admit it. She is very captivating at first sight. But as a stepmother to your child! You seem mighty anxious, Albert, to get rid of me!’
‘Not at all. And I am not so reckless as you think. I don’t make up my mind in a hurry. But the thought having occurred to me, I mention it to you at once, mother. If you dislike it, say so.’
‘I don’t say anything. I will try to make the best of it if you are determined. When does she come?’
All this time there were great preparations in train at the curate’s, who was now a householder. Rosa, whose two or three weeks’ stay on two occasions earlier in the year had so affected the squire, was coming again, and at the same time her younger brother Cornelius, to make up a family party. Rosa, who journeyed from the Midlands, could not arrive till late in the evening, but Cornelius was to get there in the afternoon, Joshua going out to meet him in his walk across the fields from the railway.
Everything being ready in Joshua’s modest abode he started on his way, his heart buoyant and thankful, if ever it was in his life. He was of such good report himself that his brother’s path into holy orders promised to be unexpectedly easy; and he longed to compare experiences with him, even though there was on hand a more exciting matter still. From his youth he had held that, in old-fashioned country places, the Church conferred social prestige up to a certain point at a cheaper price than any other profession or pursuit; and events seemed to be proving him right.
He had walked about half an hour when he saw Cornelius coming along the path; and in a few minutes the two brothers met. The experiences of Cornelius had been less immediately interesting than those of Joshua, but his personal position was satisfactory, and there was nothing to account for the singularly subdued manner that he exhibited, which at first Joshua set down to the fatigue of over-study; and he proceeded to the subject of Rosa’s arrival in the evening, and the probable consequences of this her third visit. ‘Before next Easter she’ll be his wife, my boy,’ said Joshua with grave exultation.
Cornelius shook his head. ‘She comes too late!’ he returned.
‘What do you mean?’
‘Look here.’ He produced the Fountall paper, and placed his finger on a paragraph, which Joshua read. It appeared under the report of Petty Sessions, and was a commonplace case of disorderly conduct, in which a man was sent to prison for seven days for breaking windows in that town.
‘Well?’ said Joshua.
‘It happened during an evening that I was in the street; and the offender is our father.’
‘Not—how—I sent him more money on his promising to stay in Canada?’
‘He is home, safe enough.’ Cornelius in the same gloomy tone gave the remainder of his information. He had witnessed the scene, unobserved of his father, and had heard him say that he was on his way to see his daughter, who was going to marry a rich gentleman. The only good fortune attending the untoward incident was that the millwright’s name had been printed as Joshua Alborough.
‘Beaten! We are to be beaten on the eve of our expected victory!’ said the elder brother. ‘How did he guess that Rosa was likely to marry? Good Heaven Cornelius, you seem doomed to bring bad news always, do you not!’
‘I do,’ said Cornelius. ‘Poor Rosa!’
It was almost in tears, so great was their heart-sickness and shame, that the brothers walked the remainder of the way to Joshua’s dwelling. In the evening they set out to meet Rosa, bringing her to the village in a fly; and when she had come into the house, and was sitting down with them, they almost forgot their secret anxiety in contemplating her, who knew nothing about it.
Next day the Fellmers came, and the two or three days after that were a lively time. That the squire was yielding to his impulses—making up his mind—there could be no doubt. On Sunday Cornelius read the lessons, and Joshua preached. Mrs. Fellmer was quite maternal towards Rosa, and it appeared that she had decided to welcome the inevitable with a good grace. The pretty girl was to spend yet another afternoon with the elder lady, superintending some parish treat at the house in observance of Christmas, and afterwards to stay on to dinner, her brothers to fetch her in the evening. They were also invited to dine, but they could not accept owing to an engagement.
The engagement was of a sombre sort. They were going to meet their father, who would that day be released from Fountall Gaol, and try to persuade him to keep away from Narrobourne. Every exertion was to be made to get him back to Canada, to his old home in the Midlands—anywhere, so that he would not impinge disastrously upon their courses, and blast their sister’s prospects of the auspicious marriage which was just then hanging in the balance.
As soon as Rosa had been fetched away by her friends at the manor-house her brothers started on their expedition, without waiting for dinner or tea. Cornelius, to whom the millwright always addressed his letters when he wrote any, drew from his pocket and re-read as he walked the curt note which had led to this journey being undertaken; it was despatched by their father the night before, immediately upon his liberation, and stated that he was setting out for Narrobourne at the moment of writing; that having no money he would be obliged to walk all the way; that he calculated on passing through the intervening town of Ivell about six on the following day, where he should sup at the Castle Inn, and where he hoped they would meet him with a carriage-and-pair, or some other such conveyance, that he might not disgrace them by arriving like a tramp.
‘That sounds as if he gave a thought to our position,’ said Cornelius.
Joshua knew the satire that lurked in the paternal words, and said nothing. Silence prevailed during the greater part of their journey. The lamps were lighted in Ivell when they entered the streets, and Cornelius, who was quite unknown in this neighbourhood, and who, moreover, was not in clerical attire, decided that he should be the one to call at the Castle Inn. Here, in answer to his inquiry under the darkness of the archway, they told him that such a man as he had described left the house about a quarter of an hour earlier, after making a meal in the kitchen-settle. He was rather the worse for liquor.
‘Then,’ said Joshua, when Cornelius joined him outside with this intelligence, ‘we must have met and passed him! And now that I think of it, we did meet some one who was unsteady in his gait, under the trees on the other side of Hendford Hill, where it was too dark to see him.’
They rapidly retraced their steps; but for a long stretch of the way home could discern nobody. When, however, they had gone about three-quarters of the distance, they became conscious of an irregular footfall in front of them, and could see a whitish figure in the gloom. They followed dubiously. The figure met another wayfarer—the single one that had been encountered upon this lonely road—and they distinctly heard him ask the way to Narrobourne. The stranger replied—what was quite true—that the nearest way was by turning in at the stile by the next bridge, and following the footpath which branched thence across the meadows.
When the brothers reached the stile they also entered the path, but did not overtake the subject of their worry till they had crossed two or three meads, and the lights from Narrobourne manor-house were visible before them through the trees. Their father was no longer walking; he was seated against the wet bank of an adjoining hedge. Observing their forms he shouted, ‘I’m going to Narrobourne; who may you be?’
They went up to him, and revealed themselves, reminding him of the plan which he had himself proposed in his note, that they should meet him at Ivell.
‘By Jerry, I’d forgot it!’ he said. ‘Well, what do you want me to do?’ His tone was distinctly quarrelsome.
A long conversation followed, which became embittered at the first hint from them that he should not come to the village. The millwright drew a quart bottle from his pocket, and challenged them to drink if they meant friendly and called themselves men. Neither of the two had touched alcohol for years, but for once they thought it best to accept, so as not to needlessly provoke him.
‘What’s in it?’ said Joshua.
‘A drop of weak gin-and-water. It won’t hurt ye. Drin’ from the bottle.’ Joshua did so, and his father pushed up the bottom of the vessel so as to make him swallow a good deal in spite of himself. It went down into his stomach like molten lead.
‘Ha, ha, that’s right!’ said old Halborough. ‘But ’twas raw spirit—ha, ha!’
‘Why should you take me in so!’ said Joshua, losing his self-command, try as he would to keep calm.
‘Because you took me in, my lad, in banishing me to that cursed country under pretence that it was for my good. You were a pair of hypocrites to say so. It was done to get rid of me—no more nor less. But, by Jerry, I’m a match for ye now! I’ll spoil your souls for preaching. My daughter is going to be married to the squire here. I’ve heard the news—I saw it in a paper!’
‘It is premature—’
‘I know it is true; and I’m her father, and I shall give her away, or there’ll be a hell of a row, I can assure ye! Is that where the gennleman lives?’
Joshua Halborough writhed in impotent despair. Fellmer had not yet positively declared himself, his mother was hardly won round; a scene with their father in the parish would demolish as fair a palace of hopes as was ever builded. The millwright rose. ‘If that’s where the squire lives I’m going to call. Just arrived from Canady with her fortune—ha, ha! I wish no harm to the gennleman, and the gennleman will wish no harm to me. But I like to take my place in the family, and stand upon my rights, and lower people’s pride!’
‘You’ve succeeded already! Where’s that woman you took with you—’
‘Woman! She was my wife as lawful as the Constitution—a sight more lawful than your mother was till some time after you were born!’
Joshua had for many years before heard whispers that his father had cajoled his mother in their early acquaintance, and had made somewhat tardy amends; but never from his father’s lips till now. It was the last stroke, and he could not bear it. He sank back against the hedge. ‘It is over!’ he said. ‘He ruins us all!’
The millwright moved on, waving his stick triumphantly, and the two brothers stood still. They could see his drab figure stalking along the path, and over his head the lights from the conservatory of Narrobourne House, inside which Albert Fellmer might possibly be sitting with Rosa at that moment, holding her hand, and asking her to share his home with him.
The staggering whitey-brown form, advancing to put a blot on all this, had been diminishing in the shade; and now suddenly disappeared beside a weir. There was the noise of a flounce in the water.
‘He has fallen in!’ said Cornelius, starting forward to run for the place at which his father had vanished.
Joshua, awaking from the stupefied reverie into which he had sunk, rushed to the other’s side before he had taken ten steps. ‘Stop, stop, what are you thinking of?’ he whispered hoarsely, grasping Cornelius’s arm.
‘Pulling him out!’
‘Yes, yes—so am I. But—wait a moment—’
‘Her life and happiness, you know—Cornelius—and your reputation and mine—and our chance of rising together, all three—’
He clutched his brother’s arm to the bone; and as they stood breathless the splashing and floundering in the weir continued; over it they saw the hopeful lights from the manor-house conservatory winking through the trees as their bare branches waved to and fro.
The floundering and splashing grew weaker, and they could hear gurgling words: ‘Help—I’m drownded! Rosie—Rosie!’
‘We’ll go—we must save him. O Joshua!’
‘Yes, yes! we must!’
Still they did not move, but waited, holding each other, each thinking the same thought. Weights of lead seemed to be affixed to their feet, which would no longer obey their wills. The mead became silent. Over it they fancied they could see figures moving in the conservatory. The air up there seemed to emit gentle kisses.
Cornelius started forward at last, and Joshua almost simultaneously. Two or three minutes brought them to the brink of the stream. At first they could see nothing in the water, though it was not so deep nor the night so dark but that their father’s light kerseymere coat would have been visible if he had lain at the bottom. Joshua looked this way and that.
‘He has drifted into the culvert,’ he said.
Below the foot-bridge of the weir the stream suddenly narrowed to half its width, to pass under a barrel arch or culvert constructed for waggons to cross into the middle of the mead in haymaking time. It being at present the season of high water the arch was full to the crown, against which the ripples clucked every now and then. At this point he had just caught sight of a pale object slipping under. In a moment it was gone.
They went to the lower end, but nothing emerged. For a long time they tried at both ends to effect some communication with the interior, but to no purpose.
‘We ought to have come sooner!’ said the conscience-stricken Cornelius, when they were quite exhausted, and dripping wet.
‘I suppose we ought,’ replied Joshua heavily. He perceived his father’s walking-stick on the bank; hastily picking it up he stuck it into the mud among the sedge. Then they went on.
‘Shall we—say anything about this accident?’ whispered Cornelius as they approached the door of Joshua’s house.
‘What’s the use? It can do no good. We must wait until he is found.’
They went indoors and changed their clothes; after which they started for the manor-house, reaching it about ten o’clock. Besides their sister there were only three guests; an adjoining landowner and his wife, and the infirm old rector.
Rosa, although she had parted from them so recently, grasped their hands in an ecstatic, brimming, joyful manner, as if she had not seen them for years. ‘You look pale,’ she said.
The brothers answered that they had had a long walk, and were somewhat tired. Everybody in the room seemed charged full with some sort of interesting knowledge: the squire’s neighbour and his wife looked wisely around; and Fellmer himself played the part of host with a preoccupied bearing which approached fervour. They left at eleven, not accepting the carriage offered, the distance being so short and the roads dry. The squire came rather farther into the dark with them than he need have done, and wished Rosa good-night in a mysterious manner, slightly apart from the rest.
When they were walking along Joshua said, with desperate attempt at joviality, ‘Rosa, what’s going on?’
‘O, I—’ she began between a gasp and a bound. ‘He—’
‘Never mind—if it disturbs you.’
She was so excited that she could not speak connectedly at first, the practised air which she had brought home with her having disappeared. Calming herself she added, ‘I am not disturbed, and nothing has happened. Only he said he wanted to ask me something, some day; and I said never mind that now. He hasn’t asked yet, and is coining to speak to you about it. He would have done so to-night, only I asked him not to be in a hurry. But he will come to-morrow, I am sure!’
It was summer-time, six months later, and mowers and haymakers were at work in the meads. The manor-house, being opposite them, frequently formed a peg for conversation during these operations; and the doings of the squire, and the squire’s young wife, the curate’s sister—who was at present the admired of most of them, and the interest of all—met with their due amount of criticism.
Rosa was happy, if ever woman could be said to be so. She had not learnt the fate of her father, and sometimes wondered—perhaps with a sense of relief—why he did not write to her from his supposed home in Canada. Her brother Joshua had been presented to a living in a small town, shortly after her marriage, and Cornelius had thereupon succeeded to the vacant curacy of Narrobourne.
These two had awaited in deep suspense the discovery of their father’s body; and yet the discovery had not been made. Every day they expected a man or a boy to run up from the meads with the intelligence; but he had never come. Days had accumulated to weeks and months; the wedding had come and gone: Joshua had tolled and read himself in at his new parish; and never a shout of amazement over the millwright’s remains.
But now, in June, when they were mowing the meads, the hatches had to be drawn and the water let out of its channels for the convenience of the mowers. It was thus that the discovery was made. A man, stooping low with his scythe, caught a view of the culvert lengthwise, and saw something entangled in the recently bared weeds of its bed. A day or two after there was an inquest; but the body was unrecognizable. Fish and flood had been busy with the millwright; he had no watch or marked article which could be identified; and a verdict of the accidental drowning of a person unknown settled the matter.
As the body was found in Narrobourne parish, there it had to be buried. Cornelius wrote to Joshua, begging him to come and read the service, or to send some one; he himself could not do it. Rather than let in a stranger Joshua came, and silently scanned the coroner’s order handed him by the undertaker:—
‘I, Henry Giles, Coroner for the Mid-Division of Outer Wessex, do hereby order the Burial of the Body now shown to the Inquest Jury as the Body of an Adult Male Person Unknown . . . ,’ etc.
Joshua Halborough got through the service in some way, and rejoined his brother Cornelius at his house. Neither accepted an invitation to lunch at their sister’s; they wished to discuss parish matters together. In the afternoon she came down, though they had already called on her, and had not expected to see her again. Her bright eyes, brown hair, flowery bonnet, lemon-coloured gloves, and flush beauty, were like an irradiation into the apartment, which they in their gloom could hardly bear.
‘I forgot to tell you,’ she said, ‘of a curious thing which happened to me a month or two before my marriage—something which I have thought may have had a connection with the accident to the poor man you have buried to-day. It was on that evening I was at the manor-house waiting for you to fetch me; I was in the winter-garden with Albert, and we were sitting silent together, when we fancied we heard a cry. We opened the door, and while Albert ran to fetch his hat, leaving me standing there, the cry was repeated, and my excited senses made me think I heard my own name. When Albert came back all was silent, and we decided that it was only a drunken shout, and not a cry for help. We both forgot the incident, and it never has occurred to me till since the funeral to-day that it might have been this stranger’s cry. The name of course was only fancy, or he might have had a wife or child with a name something like mine, poor man!’
When she was gone the brothers were silent till Cornelius said, ‘Now mark this, Joshua. Sooner or later she’ll know.’
‘From one of us. Do you think human hearts are iron-cased safes, that you suppose we can keep this secret for ever?’
‘Yes, I think they are, sometimes,’ said Joshua.
‘No. It will out. We shall tell.’
‘What, and ruin her—kill her? Disgrace her children, and pull down the whole auspicious house of Fellmer about our ears? No! May I—drown where he was drowned before I do it! Never, never. Surely you can say the same, Cornelius!’
Cornelius seemed fortified, and no more was said. For a long time after that day he did not see Joshua, and before the next year was out a son and heir was born to the Fellmers. The villagers rang the three bells every evening for a week and more, and were made merry by Mr. Fellmer’s ale; and when the christening came on Joshua paid Narrobourne another visit.
Among all the people who assembled on that day the brother clergymen were the least interested. Their minds were haunted by a spirit in kerseymere in the evening they walked together in the fields.
‘She’s all right,’ said Joshua. ‘But here are you doing journey-work, Cornelius, and likely to continue at it till the end of the day, as far as I can see. I, too, with my petty living—what am I after all? . . . To tell the truth, the Church is a poor forlorn hope for people without influence, particularly when their enthusiasm begins to flag. A social regenerator has a better chance outside, where he is unhampered by dogma and tradition. As for me, I would rather have gone on mending mills, with my crust of bread and liberty.’
Almost automatically they had bent their steps along the margin of the river; they now paused. They were standing on the brink of the well-known weir. There were the hatches, there was the culvert; they could see the pebbly bed of the stream through the pellucid water. The notes of the church-bells were audible, still jangled by the enthusiastic villagers.
‘Why see—it was there I hid his walking-stick!’ said Joshua, looking towards the sedge. The next moment, during a passing breeze, something flashed white on the spot to which the attention of Cornelius was drawn.
From the sedge rose a straight little silver-poplar, and it was the leaves of this sapling which caused the flicker of whiteness.
‘His walking-stick has grown!’ Joshua added. ‘It was a rough one—cut from the hedge, I remember.’
At every puff of wind the tree turned white, till they could not bear to look at it; and they walked away.
‘I see him every night,’ Cornelius murmured . . . ‘Ah, we read our Hebrews to little account, Jos! Υπέμεινε σταυρον, αισχυνης καταφρονησας. To have endured the cross, despising the shame—there lay greatness! But now I often feel that I should like to put an end to trouble here in this self-same spot.’
‘I have thought of it myself,’ said Joshua.
‘Perhaps we shall, some day,’ murmured his brother. ‘Perhaps,’ said Joshua moodily.
With that contingency to consider in the silence of their nights and days they bent their steps homewards.
End of A Tragedy Of Two Ambitions by Thomas Hardy