The Return of the Native By Thomas Hardy Book 1: Chapter 3

"What was that?" said one of the lads, stopping.

"Ah — where?" said Christian, hastily closing up to the rest.

The dancers all lessened their speed.

"'Twas behind you, Christian, that I heard it — down here."

"Yes — 'tis behind me!" Christian said. "Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, bless the bed that I lie on; four angels guard — "

"Hold your tongue. What is it?" said Fairway.

"Hoi-i-i-i!" cried a voice from the darkness.

"Halloo-o-o-o!" said Fairway.

"What was that?" said one of the lads, stopping.

"Ah — where?" said Christian, hastily closing up to the rest.

The dancers all lessened their speed.

"'Twas behind you, Christian, that I heard it — down here."

"Yes — 'tis behind me!" Christian said. "Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, bless the bed that I lie on; four angels guard — "

"Hold your tongue. What is it?" said Fairway.

"Hoi-i-i-i!" cried a voice from the darkness.

"Halloo-o-o-o!" said Fairway.

"Is there any cart track up across here to Mis'ess Yeobright's, of Blooms-End?" came to them in the same voice, as a long, slim indistinct figure approached the barrow.

"Ought we not to run home as hard as we can, neighbours, as 'tis getting late?" said Christian. "Not run away from one another, you know; run close together, I mean." "Scrape up a few stray locks of furze, and make a blaze, so that we can see who the man is," said Fairway.

When the flame arose it revealed a young man in tight raiment, and red from top to toe. "Is there a track across here to Mis'ess Yeobright's house?" he repeated.

"Ay — keep along the path down there."

"I mean a way two horses and a van can travel over?"

"Well, yes; you can get up the vale below here with time. The track is rough, but if you've got a light your horses may pick along wi' care. Have ye brought your cart far up, neighbour reddleman?"

"I've left it in the bottom, about half a mile back, I stepped on in front to make sure of the way, as 'tis night-time, and I han't been here for so long."

"Oh, well you can get up," said Fairway. "What a turn it did give me when I saw him!" he added to the whole group, the reddleman included. "Lord's sake, I thought, whatever fiery mommet is this come to trouble us? No slight to your looks, reddleman, for ye bain't bad-looking in the groundwork, though the finish is queer. My meaning is just to say how curious I felt. I half thought it 'twas the devil or the red ghost the boy told of."

"It gied me a turn likewise," said Susan Nunsuch, "for I had a dream last night of a death's head."

"Don't ye talk o't no more," said Christian. "If he had a handkerchief over his head he'd look for all the world like the Devil in the picture of the Temptation."

"Well, thank you for telling me," said the young reddleman, smiling faintly. "And good night t'ye all."

He withdrew from their sight down the barrow.

"I fancy I've seen that young man's face before," said Humphrey. "But where, or how, or what his name is, I don't know."

The reddleman had not been gone more than a few minutes when another person approached the partially revived bonfire. It proved to be a well-known and respected widow of the neighbourhood, of a standing which can only be expressed by the word genteel. Her face, encompassed by the blackness of the receding heath, showed whitely, and with-out half-lights, like a cameo.

She was a woman of middle-age, with well-formed features of the type usually found where perspicacity is the chief quality enthroned within. At moments she seemed to be regarding issues from a Nebo denied to others around. She had something of an estranged mien; the solitude exhaled from the heath was concentrated in this face that had risen from it. The air with which she looked at the heathmen betokened a certain unconcern at their presence, or at what might be their opinions of her for walking in that lonely spot at such an hour, thus indirectly implying that in some respect or other they were not up to her level. The explanation lay in the fact that though her husband had been a small farmer she herself was a curate's daughter, who had once dreamt of doing better things.

Persons with any weight of character carry, like planets, their atmospheres along with them in their orbits; and the matron who entered now upon the scene could, and usually did, bring her own tone into a company. Her normal manner among the heathfolk had that reticence which results from the consciousness of superior communicative power. But the effect of coming into society and light after lonely wandering in darkness is a sociability in the comer above its usual pitch, expressed in the features even more than in words.

"Why, 'tis Mis'ess Yeobright," said Fairway. "Mis'ess Yeobright, not ten minutes ago a man was here asking for you — a reddleman."

"What did he want?" said she.

"He didn't tell us."

"Something to sell, I suppose; what it can be I am at a loss to understand."

"I am glad to hear that your son Mr. Clym is coming home at Christmas, ma'am," said Sam, the turf-cutter. "What a dog he used to be for bonfires!"

"Yes. I believe he is coming," she said.

"He must be a fine fellow by this time," said Fairway.

"He is a man now," she replied quietly.

"'Tis very lonesome for 'ee in the heth tonight, mis'ess," said Christian, coming from the seclusion he had hitherto maintained. "Mind you don't get lost. Egdon Heth is a bad place to get lost in, and the winds do huffle queerer tonight than ever I heard 'em afore. Them that know Egdon best have been pixy-led here at times."

"Is that you, Christian?" said Mrs. Yeobright. "What made you hide away from me?"

"'Twas that I didn't know you in this light, mis'ess; and being a man of the mournfullest make, I was scared a little, that's all. Oftentimes if you could see how terrible down I get in my mind, 'twould make 'ee quite nervous for fear I should die by my hand."

"You don't take after your father," said Mrs. Yeobright, looking towards the fire, where Grandfer Cantle, with some want of originality, was dancing by himself among the sparks, as the others had done before.

"Now, Grandfer," said Timothy Fairway, "we are ashamed of ye. A reverent old patriarch man as you be — seventy if a day — to go hornpiping like that by yourself!"

"A harrowing old man, Mis'ess Yeobright," said Christian despondingly. "I wouldn't live with him a week, so playward as he is, if I could get away."

"'Twould be more seemly in ye to stand still and welcome Mis'ess Yeobright, and you the venerablest here, Grandfer Cantle," said the besom-woman.

"Faith, and so it would," said the reveller checking himself repentantly. "I've such a bad memory, Mis'ess Yeobright, that I forget how I'm looked up to by the rest of 'em. My spirits must be wonderful good, you'll say? But not always. 'Tis a weight upon a man to be looked up to as commander, and I often feel it."

"I am sorry to stop the talk," said Mrs. Yeobright. "But I must be leaving you now. I was passing down the Anglebury Road, towards my niece's new home, who is returning tonight with her husband; and seeing the bonfire and hearing Olly's voice among the rest I came up here to learn what was going on. I should like her to walk with me, as her way is mine."

"Ay, sure, ma'am, I'm just thinking of moving," said Olly.

"Why, you'll be safe to meet the reddleman that I told ye of," said Fairway. "He's only gone back to get his van. We heard that your niece and her husband were coming straight home as soon as they were married, and we are going down there shortly, to give 'em a song o' welcome."

"Thank you indeed," said Mrs. Yeobright.

"But we shall take a shorter cut through the furze than you can go with long clothes; so we won't trouble you to wait."

"Very well — are you ready, Olly?"

"Yes, ma'am. And there's a light shining from your niece's window, see. It will help to keep us in the path."

She indicated the faint light at the bottom of the valley which Fairway had pointed out; and the two women descended the tumulus.

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