After her attentive survey of the wild slopes and hollow ravines a gesture of impatience escaped Eustacia. She vented petulant words every now and then, but there were sighs between her words, and sudden listenings between her sighs. Descending from her perch she again sauntered off towards Rainbarrow, though this time she did not go the whole way.
Twice she reappeared at intervals of a few minutes and each time she said —
"Not any flounce into the pond yet, little man?"
"No, Miss Eustacia," the child replied.
"Well," she said at last, "I shall soon be going in, and then I will give you the crooked sixpence, and let you go home."
"Thank'ee, Miss Eustacia," said the tired stoker, breathing more easily. And Eustacia again strolled away from the fire, but this time not towards Rainbarrow. She skirted the bank and went round to the wicket before the house, where she stood motionless, looking at the scene.
Fifty yards off rose the corner of the two converging banks, with the fire upon it; within the bank, lifting up to the fire one stick at a time, just as before, the figure of the little child. She idly watched him as he occasionally climbed up in the nook of the bank and stood beside the brands. The wind blew the smoke, and the child's hair, and the corner of his pinafore, all in the same direction; the breeze died, and the pinafore and hair lay still, and the smoke went up straight.
While Eustacia looked on from this distance the boy's form visibly started — he slid down the bank and ran across towards the white gate.
"Well?" said Eustacia.
"A hopfrog have jumped into the pond. Yes, I heard 'en!"
"Then it is going to rain, and you had better go home. You will not be afraid?" She spoke hurriedly, as if her heart had leapt into her throat at the boy's words.
"No, because I shall hae the crooked sixpence."
"Yes, here it is. Now run as fast as you can — not that way — through the garden here. No other boy in the heath has had such a bonfire as yours."
The boy, who clearly had had too much of a good thing, marched away into the shadows with alacrity. When he was gone Eustacia, leaving her telescope and hourglass by the gate, brushed forward from the wicket towards the angle of the bank, under the fire.
Here, screened by the outwork, she waited. In a few moments a splash was audible from the pond outside. Had the child been there he would have said that a second frog had jumped in; but by most people the sound would have been likened to the fall of a stone into the water. Eustacia stepped upon the bank.
"Yes?" she said, and held her breath.
Thereupon the contour of a man became dimly visible against the low-reaching sky over the valley, beyond the outer margin of the pool. He came round it and leapt upon the bank beside her. A low laugh escaped her — the third utterance which the girl had indulged in tonight. The first, when she stood upon Rainbarrow, had expressed anxiety; the second, on the ridge, had expressed impatience; the present was one of triumphant pleasure. She let her joyous eyes rest upon him without speaking, as upon some wondrous thing she had created out of chaos.
"I have come," said the man, who was Wildeve. "You give me no peace. Why do you not leave me alone? I have seen your bonfire all the evening." The words were not without emotion, and retained their level tone as if by a careful equipoise between imminent extremes.
At this unexpectedly repressing manner in her lover the girl seemed to repress herself also. "Of course you have seen my fire," she answered with languid calmness, artificially maintained. "Why shouldn't I have a bonfire on the Fifth of November, like other denizens of the heath?"
"I knew it was meant for me."
"How did you know it? I have had no word with you since you — you chose her, and walked about with her, and deserted me entirely, as if I had never been yours life and soul so irretrievably!"
"Eustacia! could I forget that last autumn at this same day of the month and at this same place you lighted exactly such a fire as a signal for me to come and see you? Why should there have been a bonfire again by Captain Vye's house if not for the same purpose?"
"Yes, yes — I own it," she cried under her breath, with a drowsy fervour of manner and tone which was quite peculiar to her. "Don't begin speaking to me as you did, Damon; you will drive me to say words I would not wish to say to you. I had given you up, and resolved not to think of you any more; and then I heard the news, and I came out and got the fire ready because I thought that you had been faithful to me."
"What have you heard to make you think that?" said Wildeve, astonished.
"That you did not marry her!" she murmured exultingly. "And I knew it was because you loved me best, and couldn't do it....Damon, you have been cruel to me to go away, and I have said I would never forgive you. I do not think I can forgive you entirely, even now — it is too much for a woman of any spirit to quite overlook."
"If I had known you wished to call me up here only to reproach me, I wouldn't have come."
"But I don't mind it, and I do forgive you now that you have not married her, and have come back to me!"
"Who told you that I had not married her?"
"My grandfather. He took a long walk today, and as he was coming home he overtook some person who told him of a broken-off wedding — he thought it might be yours, and I knew it was."
"Does anybody else know?"
"I suppose not. Now Damon, do you see why I lit my signal fire? You did not think I would have lit it if I had imagined you to have become the husband of this woman. It is insulting my pride to suppose that."
Wildeve was silent; it was evident that he had supposed as much.
"Did you indeed think I believed you were married?" she again demanded earnestly. "Then you wronged me; and upon my life and heart I can hardly bear to recognize that you have such ill thoughts of me! Damon, you are not worthy of me — I see it, and yet I love you. Never mind, let it go — I must bear your mean opinion as best I may....It is true, is it not," she added with ill-concealed anxiety, on his making no demonstration, "that you could not bring yourself to give me up, and are still going to love me best of all?"
"Yes; or why should I have come?" he said touchily. "Not that fidelity will be any great merit in me after your kind speech about my unworthiness, which should have been said by myself if by anybody, and comes with an ill grace from you. However, the curse of inflammability is upon me, and I must live under it, and take any snub from a woman. It has brought me down from engineering to innkeeping — what lower stage it has in store for me I have yet to learn." He continued to look upon her gloomily.
She seized the moment, and throwing back the shawl so that the firelight shone full upon her face and throat, said with a smile, "Have you seen anything better than that in your travels?"
Eustacia was not one to commit herself to such a position without good ground. He said quietly, "No."
"Not even on the shoulders of Thomasin?"
"Thomasin is a pleasing and innocent woman."
"That's nothing to do with it," she cried with quick passionateness. "We will leave her out; there are only you and me now to think of." After a long look at him she resumed with the old quiescent warmth, "Must I go on weakly confessing to you things a woman ought to conceal; and own that no words can express how gloomy I have been because of that dreadful belief I held till two hours ago — that you had quite deserted me?"
"I am sorry I caused you that pain."
"But perhaps it is not wholly because of you that I get gloomy," she archly added. "It is in my nature to feel like that. It was born in my blood, I suppose."