"You do not intend to walk home by yourself?" he asked.
"O yes," said Eustacia. "What could hurt me on this heath, who have nothing?"
"By diverging a little I can make my way home the same as yours. I shall be glad to keep you company as far as Throope Corner." Seeing that Eustacia sat on in hesitation he added, "Perhaps you think it unwise to be seen in the same road with me after the events of last summer?"
"Indeed I think no such thing," she said haughtily. "I shall accept whose company I choose, for all that may be said by the miserable inhabitants of Egdon."
"Then let us walk on — if you are ready. Our nearest way is towards that holly bush with the dark shadow that you see down there."
Eustacia arose, and walked beside him in the direction signified, brushing her way over the damping heath and fern, and followed by the strains of the merrymakers, who still kept up the dance. The moon had now waxed bright and silvery, but the heath was proof against such illumination, and there was to be observed the striking scene of a dark, rayless tract of country under an atmosphere charged from its zenith to its extremities with whitest light. To an eye above them their two faces would have appeared amid the expanse like two pearls on a table of ebony.
On this account the irregularities of the path were not visible, and Wildeve occasionally stumbled; whilst Eustacia found it necessary to perform some graceful feats of balancing whenever a small tuft of heather or root of furze protruded itself through the grass of the narrow track and entangled her feet. At these junctures in her progress a hand was invariably stretched forward to steady her, holding her firmly until smooth ground was again reached, when the hand was again withdrawn to a respectful distance.
They performed the journey for the most part in silence, and drew near to Throope Corner, a few hundred yards from which a short path branched away to Eustacia's house. By degrees they discerned coming towards them a pair of human figures, apparently of the male sex.
When they came a little nearer Eustacia broke the silence by saying, "One of those men is my husband. He promised to come to meet me."
"And the other is my greatest enemy," said Wildeve.
"It looks like Diggory Venn."
"That is the man."
"It is an awkward meeting," said she; "but such is my fortune. He knows too much about me, unless he could know more, and so prove to himself that what he now knows counts for nothing. Well, let it be — you must deliver me up to them."
"You will think twice before you direct me to do that. Here is a man who has not forgotten an item in our meetings at Rainbarrow — he is in company with your husband. Which of them, seeing us together here, will believe that our meeting and dancing at the gipsy party was by chance?"
"Very well," she whispered gloomily. "Leave me before they come up."
Wildeve bade her a tender farewell, and plunged across the fern and furze, Eustacia slowly walking on. In two or three minutes she met her husband and his companion.
"My journey ends here for tonight, reddleman," said Yeobright as soon as he perceived her. "I turn back with this lady. Good night."
"Good night, Mr. Yeobright," said Venn. "I hope to see you better soon."
The moonlight shone directly upon Venn's face as he spoke, and revealed all its lines to Eustacia. He was looking suspiciously at her. That Venn's keen eye had discerned what Yeobright's feeble vision had not — a man in the act of withdrawing from Eustacia's side — was within the limits of the probable.
If Eustacia had been able to follow the reddleman she would soon have found striking confirmation of her thought. No sooner had Clym given her his arm and led her off the scene than the reddleman turned back from the beaten track towards East Egdon, whither he had been strolling merely to accompany Clym in his walk, Diggory's van being again in the neighbourhood. Stretching out his long legs, he crossed the pathless portion of the heath somewhat in the direction which Wildeve had taken. Only a man accustomed to nocturnal rambles could at this hour have descended those shaggy slopes with Venn's velocity without falling headlong into a pit, or snapping off his leg by jamming his foot into some rabbit burrow. But Venn went on without much inconvenience to himself, and the course of his scamper was towards the Quiet Woman Inn. This place he reached in about half an hour, and he was well aware that no person who had been near Throope Corner when he started could have got down here before him.
The lonely inn was not yet closed, though scarcely an individual was there, the business done being chiefly with travellers who passed the inn on long journeys, and these had now gone on their way. Venn went to the public room, called for a mug of ale, and inquired of the maid in an indifferent tone if Mr. Wildeve was at home.
Thomasin sat in an inner room and heard Venn's voice. When customers were present she seldom showed herself, owing to her inherent dislike for the business; but perceiving that no one else was there tonight she came out.
"He is not at home yet, Diggory," she said pleasantly. "But I expected him sooner. He has been to East Egdon to buy a horse."
"Did he wear a light wideawake?"
"Then I saw him at Throope Corner, leading one home," said Venn drily. "A beauty, with a white face and a mane as black as night. He will soon be here, no doubt." Rising and looking for a moment at the pure, sweet face of Thomasin, over which a shadow of sadness had passed since the time when he had last seen her, he ventured to add, "Mr. Wildeve seems to be often away at this time."
"O yes," cried Thomasin in what was intended to be a tone of gaiety. "Husbands will play the truant, you know. I wish you could tell me of some secret plan that would help me to keep him home at my will in the evenings."
"I will consider if I know of one," replied Venn in that same light tone which meant no lightness. And then he bowed in a manner of his own invention and moved to go. Thomasin offered him her hand; and without a sigh, though with food for many, the reddleman went out.
When Wildeve returned, a quarter of an hour later Thomasin said simply, and in the abashed manner usual with her now, "Where is the horse, Damon?"
"O, I have not bought it, after all. The man asks too much."
"But somebody saw you at Throope Corner leading it home — a beauty, with a white face and a mane as black as night."
"Ah!" said Wildeve, fixing his eyes upon her; "who told you that?"
"Venn the reddleman."
The expression of Wildeve's face became curiously condensed. "That is a mistake — it must have been someone else," he said slowly and testily, for he perceived that Venn's countermoves had begun again.