Mrs. Yeobright was far too thoughtful a woman to be content with ready definitions, and, like the "What is wisdom?" of Plato's Socrates, and the "What is truth?" of Pontius Pilate, Yeobright's burning question received no answer.
The silence was broken by the clash of the garden gate, a tap at the door, and its opening. Christian Cantle appeared in the room in his Sunday clothes.
It was the custom on Egdon to begin the preface to a story before absolutely entering the house, so as to be well in for the body of the narrative by the time visitor and visited stood face to face. Christian had been saying to them while the door was leaving its latch, "To think that I, who go from home but once in a while, and hardly then, should have been there this morning!"
"'Tis news you have brought us, then, Christian?" said Mrs. Yeobright.
"Ay, sure, about a witch, and ye must overlook my time o' day; for, says I, 'I must go and tell 'em, though they won't have half done dinner.' I assure ye it made me shake like a driven leaf. Do ye think any harm will come o't?"
"Well — what?"
"This morning at church we was all standing up, and the pa'son said, 'Let us pray.' 'Well,' thinks I, 'one may as well kneel as stand'; so down I went; and, more than that, all the rest were as willing to oblige the man as I. We hadn't been hard at it for more than a minute when a most terrible screech sounded through church, as if somebody had just gied up their heart's blood. All the folk jumped up and then we found that Susan Nunsuch had pricked Miss Vye with a long stocking-needle, as she had threatened to do as soon as ever she could get the young lady to church, where she don't come very often. She've waited for this chance for weeks, so as to draw her blood and put an end to the bewitching of Susan's children that has been carried on so long. Sue followed her into church, sat next to her, and as soon as she could find a chance in went the stocking-needle into my lady's arm."
"Good heaven, how horrid!" said Mrs. Yeobright.
"Sue pricked her that deep that the maid fainted away; and as I was afeard there might be some tumult among us, I got behind the bass viol and didn't see no more. But they carried her out into the air, 'tis said; but when they looked round for Sue she was gone. What a scream that girl gied, poor thing! There were the pa'son in his surplice holding up his hand and saying, 'Sit down, my good people, sit down!' But the deuce a bit would they sit down. O, and what d'ye think I found out, Mrs. Yeobright? The pa'son wears a suit of clothes under his surplice! — I could see his black sleeves when he held up his arm."
"'Tis a cruel thing," said Yeobright.
"Yes," said his mother.
"The nation ought to look into it," said Christian. "Here's Humphrey coming, I think."
In came Humphrey. "Well, have ye heard the news? But I see you have. 'Tis a very strange thing that whenever one of Egdon folk goes to church some rum job or other is sure to be doing. The last time one of us was there was when neighbour Fairway went in the fall; and that was the day you forbad the banns, Mrs. Yeobright."
"Has this cruelly treated girl been able to walk home?" said Clym.
"They say she got better, and went home very well. And now I've told it I must be moving homeward myself."
"And I," said Humphrey. "Truly now we shall see if there's anything in what folks say about her."
When they were gone into the heath again Yeobright said quietly to his mother, "Do you think I have turned teacher too soon?"
"It is right that there should be schoolmasters, and missionaries, and all such men," she replied. "But it is right, too, that I should try to lift you out of this life into something richer, and that you should not come back again, and be as if I had not tried at all."
Later in the day Sam, the turf-cutter, entered. "I've come a-borrowing, Mrs. Yeobright. I suppose you have heard what's been happening to the beauty on the hill?"
"Yes, Sam: half a dozen have been telling us."
"Beauty?" said Clym.
"Yes, tolerably well-favoured," Sam replied. "Lord! all the country owns that 'tis one of the strangest things in the world that such a woman should have come to live up there."
"Dark or fair?"
"Now, though I've seen her twenty times, that's a thing I cannot call to mind."
"Darker than Tamsin," murmured Mrs. Yeobright.
"A woman who seems to care for nothing at all, as you may say."
"She is melancholy, then?" inquired Clym.
"She mopes about by herself, and don't mix in with the people."
"Is she a young lady inclined for adventures?"
"Not to my knowledge."
"Doesn't join in with the lads in their games, to get some sort of excitement in this lonely place?"
"Mumming, for instance?"
"No. Her notions be different. I should rather say her thoughts were far away from here, with lords and ladies she'll never know, and mansions she'll never see again."
Observing that Clym appeared singularly interested Mrs. Yeobright said rather uneasily to Sam, "You see more in her than most of us do. Miss Vye is to my mind too idle to be charming. I have never heard that she is of any use to herself or to other people. Good girls don't get treated as witches even on Egdon."
"Nonsense — that proves nothing either way," said Yeobright.
"Well, of course I don't understand such niceties," said Sam, withdrawing from a possibly unpleasant argument; "and what she is we must wait for time to tell us. The business that I have really called about is this, to borrow the longest and strongest rope you have. The captain's bucket has dropped into the well, and they are in want of water; and as all the chaps are at home today we think we can get it out for him. We have three cart-ropes already, but they won't reach to the bottom."
Mrs. Yeobright told him that he might have whatever ropes he could find in the outhouse, and Sam went out to search. When he passed by the door Clym joined him, and accompanied him to the gate.
"Is this young witch-lady going to stay long at Mistover?" he asked.
"I should say so."
"What a cruel shame to ill-use her, She must have suffered greatly — more in mind than in body."
"'Twas a graceless trick — such a handsome girl, too. You ought to see her, Mr. Yeobright, being a young man come from far, and with a little more to show for your years than most of us."
"Do you think she would like to teach children?" said Clym.
Sam shook his head. "Quite a different sort of body from that, I reckon."
"O, it was merely something which occurred to me. It would of course be necessary to see her and talk it over — not an easy thing, by the way, for my family and hers are not very friendly."
"I'll tell you how you mid see her, Mr. Yeobright," said Sam. "We are going to grapple for the bucket at six o'clock tonight at her house, and you could lend a hand. There's five or six coming, but the well is deep, and another might be useful, if you don't mind appearing in that shape. She's sure to be walking round."
"I'll think of it," said Yeobright; and they parted.
He thought of it a good deal; but nothing more was said about Eustacia inside the house at that time. Whether this romantic martyr to superstition and the melancholy mummer he had conversed with under the full moon were one and the same person remained as yet a problem.