Eustacia could not help replying, though conscious that she endangered her dignity thereby. "Many women are lovelier than Thomasin," she said, "so not much attaches to that."
The reddleman suffered the wound and went on: "He is a man who notices the looks of women, and you could twist him to your will like withywind, if you only had the mind."
"Surely what she cannot do who has been so much with him I cannot do living up here away from him."
The reddleman wheeled and looked her in the face. "Miss Vye!" he said.
"Why do you say that — as if you doubted me?" She spoke faintly, and her breathing was quick. "The idea of your speaking in that tone to me!" she added, with a forced smile of hauteur. "What could have been in your mind to lead you to speak like that?"
"Miss Vye, why should you make believe that you don't know this man? — I know why, certainly. He is beneath you, and you are ashamed."
"You are mistaken. What do you mean?"
The reddleman had decided to play the card of truth. "I was at the meeting by Rainbarrow last night and heard every word," he said. "The woman that stands between Wildeve and Thomasin is yourself."
It was a disconcerting lift of the curtain, and the mortification of Candaules' wife glowed in her. The moment had arrived when her lip would tremble in spite of herself, and when the gasp could no longer be kept down.
"I am unwell," she said hurriedly. "No — it is not that — I am not in a humour to hear you further. Leave me, please."
"I must speak, Miss Vye, in spite of paining you. What I would put before you is this. However it may come about — whether she is to blame, or you — her case is without doubt worse than yours. Your giving up Mr. Wildeve will be a real advantage to you, for how could you marry him? Now she cannot get off so easily — everybody will blame her if she loses him. Then I ask you — not because her right is best, but because her situation is worst — to give him up to her."
"No — I won't, I won't!" she said impetuously, quite forgetful of her previous manner towards the reddleman as an underling. "Nobody has ever been served so! It was going on well — I will not be beaten down — by an inferior woman like her. It is very well for you to come and plead for her, but is she not herself the cause of all her own trouble? Am I not to show favour to any person I may choose without asking permission of a parcel of cottagers? She has come between me and my inclination, and now that she finds herself rightly punished she gets you to plead for her!"
"Indeed," said Venn earnestly, "she knows nothing whatever about it. It is only I who ask you to give him up. It will be better for her and you both. People will say bad things if they find out that a lady secretly meets a man who has ill-used another woman."
"I have NOT injured her — he was mine before he was hers! He came back — because — because he liked me best!" she said wildly. "But I lose all self-respect in talking to you. What am I giving way to!"
"I can keep secrets," said Venn gently. "You need not fear. I am the only man who knows of your meetings with him. There is but one thing more to speak of, and then I will be gone. I heard you say to him that you hated living here — that Egdon Heath was a jail to you."
"I did say so. There is a sort of beauty in the scenery, I know; but it is a jail to me. The man you mention does not save me from that feeling, though he lives here. I should have cared nothing for him had there been a better person near."
The reddleman looked hopeful; after these words from her his third attempt seemed promising. "As we have now opened our minds a bit, miss," he said, "I'll tell you what I have got to propose. Since I have taken to the reddle trade I travel a good deal, as you know."
She inclined her head, and swept round so that her eyes rested in the misty vale beneath them.
"And in my travels I go near Budmouth. Now Budmouth is a wonderful place — wonderful — a great salt sheening sea bending into the land like a bow — thousands of gentlepeople walking up and down — bands of music playing — officers by sea and officers by land walking among the rest — out of every ten folks you meet nine of 'em in love."
"I know it," she said disdainfully. "I know Budmouth better than you. I was born there. My father came to be a military musician there from abroad. Ah, my soul, Budmouth! I wish I was there now."
The reddleman was surprised to see how a slow fire could blaze on occasion. "If you were, miss," he replied, "in a week's time you would think no more of Wildeve than of one of those he'th-croppers that we see yond. Now, I could get you there."
"How?" said Eustacia, with intense curiosity in her heavy eyes.
"My uncle has been for five and twenty years the trusty man of a rich widow-lady who has a beautiful house facing the sea. This lady has become old and lame, and she wants a young company-keeper to read and sing to her, but can't get one to her mind to save her life, though she've advertised in the papers, and tried half a dozen. She would jump to get you, and Uncle would make it all easy."
"I should have to work, perhaps?"
"No, not real work — you'd have a little to do, such as reading and that. You would not be wanted till New Year's Day."
"I knew it meant work," she said, drooping to languor again.
"I confess there would be a trifle to do in the way of amusing her; but though idle people might call it work, working people would call it play. Think of the company and the life you'd lead, miss; the gaiety you'd see, and the gentleman you'd marry. My uncle is to inquire for a trustworthy young lady from the country, as she don't like town girls."
"It is to wear myself out to please her! and I won't go. O, if I could live in a gay town as a lady should, and go my own ways, and do my own doings, I'd give the wrinkled half of my life! Yes, reddleman, that would I."
"Help me to get Thomasin happy, miss, and the chance shall be yours," urged her companion.
"Chance — 'tis no chance," she said proudly. "What can a poor man like you offer me, indeed? — I am going indoors. I have nothing more to say. Don't your horses want feeding, or your reddlebags want mending, or don't you want to find buyers for your goods, that you stay idling here like this?"
Venn spoke not another word. With his hands behind him he turned away, that she might not see the hopeless disappointment in his face. The mental clearness and power he had found in this lonely girl had indeed filled his manner with misgiving even from the first few minutes of close quarters with her. Her youth and situation had led him to expect a simplicity quite at the beck of his method. But a system of inducement which might have carried weaker country lasses along with it had merely repelled Eustacia. As a rule, the word Budmouth meant fascination on Egdon. That Royal port and watering place, if truly mirrored in the minds of the heathfolk, must have combined, in a charming and indescribable manner a Carthaginian bustle of building with Tarentine luxuriousness and Baian health and beauty. Eustacia felt little less extravagantly about the place; but she would not sink her independence to get there.
When Diggory Venn had gone quite away, Eustacia walked to the bank and looked down the wild and picturesque vale towards the sun, which was also in the direction of Wildeve's. The mist had now so far collapsed that the tips of the trees and bushes around his house could just be discerned, as if boring upwards through a vast white cobweb which cloaked them from the day. There was no doubt that her mind was inclined thitherward; indefinitely, fancifully — twining and untwining about him as the single object within her horizon on which dreams might crystallize. The man who had begun by being merely her amusement, and would never have been more than her hobby but for his skill in deserting her at the right moments, was now again her desire. Cessation in his love-making had revivified her love. Such feeling as Eustacia had idly given to Wildeve was dammed into a flood by Thomasin. She had used to tease Wildeve, but that was before another had favoured him. Often a drop of irony into an indifferent situation renders the whole piquant.
"I will never give him up — never!" she said impetuously.
The reddleman's hint that rumour might show her to disadvantage had no permanent terror for Eustacia. She was as unconcerned at that contingency as a goddess at a lack of linen. This did not originate in inherent shamelessness, but in her living too far from the world to feel the impact of public opinion. Zenobia in the desert could hardly have cared what was said about her at Rome. As far as social ethics were concerned Eustacia approached the savage state, though in emotion she was all the while an epicure. She had advanced to the secret recesses of sensuousness, yet had hardly crossed the threshold of conventionality.