But the loss of his labour produced little effect upon the reddleman. He had stood in the shoes of Tantalus, and seemed to look upon a certain mass of disappointment as the natural preface to all realizations, without which preface they would give cause for alarm.
The same hour the next evening found him again at the same place; but Eustacia and Wildeve, the expected trysters, did not appear.
He pursued precisely the same course yet four nights longer, and without success. But on the next, being the day-week of their previous meeting, he saw a female shape floating along the ridge and the outline of a young man ascending from the valley. They met in the little ditch encircling the tumulus — the original excavation from which it had been thrown up by the ancient British people.
The reddleman, stung with suspicion of wrong to Thomasin, was aroused to strategy in a moment. He instantly left the bush and crept forward on his hands and knees. When he had got as close as he might safely venture without discovery he found that, owing to a cross-wind, the conversation of the trysting pair could not be overheard.
Near him, as in divers places about the heath, were areas strewn with large turves, which lay edgeways and upside down awaiting removal by Timothy Fairway, previous to the winter weather. He took two of these as he lay, and dragged them over him till one covered his head and shoulders, the other his back and legs. The reddleman would now have been quite invisible, even by daylight; the turves, standing upon him with the heather upwards, looked precisely as if they were growing. He crept along again, and the turves upon his back crept with him. Had he approached without any covering the chances are that he would not have been perceived in the dusk; approaching thus, it was as though he burrowed underground. In this manner he came quite close to where the two were standing.
"Wish to consult me on the matter?" reached his ears in the rich, impetuous accents of Eustacia Vye. "Consult me? It is an indignity to me to talk so — I won't bear it any longer!" She began weeping. "I have loved you, and have shown you that I loved you, much to my regret; and yet you can come and say in that frigid way that you wish to consult with me whether it would not be better to marry Thomasin. Better — of course it would be. Marry her — she is nearer to your own position in life than I am!"
"Yes, yes; that's very well," said Wildeve peremptorily. "But we must look at things as they are. Whatever blame may attach to me for having brought it about, Thomasin's position is at present much worse than yours. I simply tell you that I am in a strait."
"But you shall not tell me! You must see that it is only harassing me. Damon, you have not acted well; you have sunk in my opinion. You have not valued my courtesy — the courtesy of a lady in loving you — who used to think of far more ambitious things. But it was Thomasin's fault.
"She won you away from me, and she deserves to suffer for it. Where is she staying now? Not that I care, nor where I am myself. Ah, if I were dead and gone how glad she would be! Where is she, I ask?"
"Thomasin is now staying at her aunt's shut up in a bedroom, and keeping out of everybody's sight," he said indifferently.
"I don't think you care much about her even now," said Eustacia with sudden joyousness, "for if you did you wouldn't talk so coolly about her. Do you talk so coolly to her about me? Ah, I expect you do! Why did you originally go away from me? I don't think I can ever forgive you, except on one condition, that whenever you desert me, you come back again, sorry that you served me so."
"I never wish to desert you."
"I do not thank you for that. I should hate it to be all smooth. Indeed, I think I like you to desert me a little once now and then. Love is the dismallest thing where the lover is quite honest. O, it is a shame to say so; but it is true!" She indulged in a little laugh. "My low spirits begin at the very idea. Don't you offer me tame love, or away you go!"
"I wish Tamsie were not such a confoundedly good little woman," said Wildeve, "so that I could be faithful to you without injuring a worthy person. It is I who am the sinner after all; I am not worth the little finger of either of you."
"But you must not sacrifice yourself to her from any sense of justice," replied Eustacia quickly. "If you do not love her it is the most merciful thing in the long run to leave her as she is. That's always the best way. There, now I have been unwomanly, I suppose. When you have left me I am always angry with myself for things that I have said to you."
Wildeve walked a pace or two among the heather without replying. The pause was filled up by the intonation of a pollard thorn a little way to windward, the breezes filtering through its unyielding twigs as through a strainer. It was as if the night sang dirges with clenched teeth.
She continued, half sorrowfully, "Since meeting you last, it has occurred to me once or twice that perhaps it was not for love of me you did not marry her. Tell me, Damon — I'll try to bear it. Had I nothing whatever to do with the matter?"
"Do you press me to tell?"
"Yes, I must know. I see I have been too ready to believe in my own power."
"Well, the immediate reason was that the license would not do for the place, and before I could get another she ran away. Up to that point you had nothing to do with it. Since then her aunt has spoken to me in a tone which I don't at all like."
"Yes, yes! I am nothing in it — I am nothing in it. You only trifle with me. Heaven, what can I, Eustacia Vye, be made of to think so much of you!"
"Nonsense; do not be so passionate....Eustacia, how we roved among these bushes last year, when the hot days had got cool, and the shades of the hills kept us almost invisible in the hollows!"
She remained in moody silence till she said, "Yes; and how I used to laugh at you for daring to look up to me! But you have well made me suffer for that since."
"Yes, you served me cruelly enough until I thought I had found someone fairer than you. A blessed find for me, Eustacia."
"Do you still think you found somebody fairer?"
"Sometimes I do, sometimes I don't. The scales are balanced so nicely that a feather would turn them."
"But don't you really care whether I meet you or whether I don't?" she said slowly.
"I care a little, but not enough to break my rest," replied the young man languidly. "No, all that's past. I find there are two flowers where I thought there was only one. Perhaps there are three, or four, or any number as good as the first....Mine is a curious fate. Who would have thought that all this could happen to me?"
She interrupted with a suppressed fire of which either love or anger seemed an equally possible issue, "Do you love me now?"
"Who can say?"
"Tell me; I will know it!"
"I do, and I do not," said he mischievously. "That is, I have my times and my seasons. One moment you are too tall, another moment you are too do-nothing, another too melancholy, another too dark, another I don't know what, except — that you are not the whole world to me that you used to be, my dear. But you are a pleasant lady to know and nice to meet, and I dare say as sweet as ever — almost."
Eustacia was silent, and she turned from him, till she said, in a voice of suspended mightiness, "I am for a walk, and this is my way."
"Well, I can do worse than follow you."
"You know you can't do otherwise, for all your moods and changes!" she answered defiantly. "Say what you will; try as you may; keep away from me all that you can — you will never forget me. You will love me all your life long. You would jump to marry me!"
"So I would!" said Wildeve. "Such strange thoughts as I've had from time to time, Eustacia; and they come to me this moment. You hate the heath as much as ever; that I know."
"I do," she murmured deeply. "'Tis my cross, my shame, and will be my death!"
"I abhor it too," said he. "How mournfully the wind blows round us now!"
She did not answer. Its tone was indeed solemn and pervasive. Compound utterances addressed themselves to their senses, and it was possible to view by ear the features of the neighbourhood. Acoustic pictures were returned from the darkened scenery; they could hear where the tracts of heather began and ended; where the furze was growing stalky and tall; where it had been recently cut; in what direction the fir-clump lay, and how near was the pit in which the hollies grew; for these differing features had their voices no less than their shapes and colours.