It chanced that on a fine spring morning Henchard and Farfrae met in the chestnut-walk which ran along the south wall of the town. Each had just come out from his early breakfast, and there was not another soul near. Henchard was reading a letter from Lucetta, sent in answer to a note from him, in which she made some excuse for not immediately granting him a second interview that he had desired.
Donald had no wish to enter into conversation with his former friend on their present constrained terms; neither would he pass him in scowling silence. He nodded, and Henchard did the same. They receded from each other several paces when a voice cried "Farfrae!" It was Henchard's, who stood regarding him.
"Do you remember," said Henchard, as if it were the presence of the thought and not of the man which made him speak, "do you remember my story of that second woman — who suffered for her thoughtless intimacy with me?"
"I do," said Farfrae.
"Do you remember my telling 'ee how it all began and how it ended?
"Well, I have offered to marry her now that I can; but she won't marry me. Now what would you think of her — I put it to you?"
"Well, ye owe her nothing more now," said Farfrae heartily.
"It is true," said Henchard, and went on.
That he had looked up from a letter to ask his questions completely shut out from Farfrae's mind all vision of Lucetta as the culprit. Indeed, her present position was so different from that of the young woman of Henchard's story as of itself to be sufficient to blind him absolutely to her identity. As for Henchard, he was reassured by Farfrae's words and manner against a suspicion which had crossed his mind. They were not those of a conscious rival.
Yet that there was rivalry by some one he was firmly persuaded. He could feel it in the air around Lucetta, see it in the turn of her pen. There was an antagonistic force in exercise, so that when he had tried to hang near her he seemed standing in a refluent current. That it was not innate caprice he was more and more certain. Her windows gleamed as if they did not want him; her curtains seem to hang slily, as if they screened an ousting presence. To discover whose presence that was — whether really Farfrae's after all, or another's — he exerted himself to the utmost to see her again; and at length succeeded.
At the interview, when she offered him tea, he made it a point to launch a cautious inquiry if she knew Mr. Farfrae.
O yes, she knew him, she declared; she could not help knowing almost everybody in Casterbridge, living in such a gazebo over the centre and arena of the town.
"Pleasant young fellow," said Henchard.
"Yes," said Lucetta.
"We both know him," said kind Elizabeth-Jane, to relieve her companion's divined embarrassment.
There was a knock at the door; literally, three full knocks and a little one at the end.
"That kind of knock means half-and-half — somebody between gentle and simple," said the corn-merchant to himself. "I shouldn't wonder therefore if it is he." In a few seconds surely enough Donald walked in.
Lucetta was full of little fidgets and flutters, which increased Henchard's suspicions without affording any special proof of their correctness. He was well-nigh ferocious at the sense of the queer situation in which he stood towards this woman. One who had reproached him for deserting her when calumniated, who had urged claims upon his consideration on that account, who had lived waiting for him, who at the first decent opportunity had come to ask him to rectify, by making her his, the false position into which she had placed herself for his sake; such she had been. And now he sat at her tea-table eager to gain her attention, and in his amatory rage feeling the other man present to be a villain, just as any young fool of a lover might feel.
They sat stiffly side by side at the darkening table, like some Tuscan painting of the two disciples supping at Emmaus. Lucetta, forming the third and haloed figure, was opposite them; Elizabeth-Jane, being out of the game, and out of the group, could observe all from afar, like the evangelist who had to write it down: that there were long spaces of taciturnity, when all exterior circumstances were subdued to the touch of spoons and china, the click of a heel on the pavement under the window, the passing of a wheelbarrow or cart, the whistling of the carter, the gush of water into householders' buckets at the town-pump opposite, the exchange of greetings among their neighbours, and the rattle of the yokes by which they carried off their evening supply.