The Ring at Casterbridge was merely the local name of one of the finest Roma_mphitheatres, if not the very finest, remaining in Britain.
Casterbridge announced old Rome in every street, alley, and precinct. I_ooked Roman, bespoke the art of Rome, concealed dead men of Rome. It wa_mpossible to dig more than a foot or two deep about the town fields an_ardens without coming upon some tall soldier or other of the Empire, who ha_ain there in his silent unobtrusive rest for a space of fifteen hundre_ears. He was mostly found lying on his side, in an oval scoop in the chalk,
like a chicken in its shell; his knees drawn up to his chest; sometimes wit_he remains of his spear against his arm, a fibula or brooch of bronze on hi_reast or forehead, an urn at his knees, a jar at his throat, a bottle at hi_outh; and mystified conjecture pouring down upon him from the eyes o_asterbridge street boys and men, who had turned a moment to gaze at th_amiliar spectacle as they passed by.
Imaginative inhabitants, who would have felt an unpleasantness at th_iscovery of a comparatively modern skeleton in their gardens, were quit_nmoved by these hoary shapes. They had lived so long ago, their time was s_nlike the present, their hopes and motives were so widely removed from ours,
that between them and the living there seemed to stretch a gulf too wide fo_ven a spirit to pass.
The Amphitheatre was a huge circular enclosure, with a notch at opposit_xtremities of its diameter north and south. From its sloping internal form i_ight have been called the spittoon of the Jotuns. It was to Casterbridge wha_he ruined Coliseum is to modern Rome, and was nearly of the same magnitude.
The dusk of evening was the proper hour at which a true impression of thi_uggestive place could be received. Standing in the middle of the arena a_hat time there by degrees became apparent its real vastness, which a cursor_iew from the summit at noon-day was apt to obscure. Melancholy, impressive,
lonely, yet accessible from every part of the town, the historic circle wa_he frequent spot for appointments of a furtive kind. Intrigues were arrange_here; tentative meetings were there experimented after divisions and feuds.
But one kind of appointment—in itself the most common of any—seldom had plac_n the Amphitheatre: that of happy lovers.
Why, seeing that it was pre-eminently an airy, accessible, and sequestere_pot for interviews, the cheerfullest form of those occurrences never too_indly to the soil of the ruin, would be a curious inquiry. Perhaps it wa_ecause its associations had about them something sinister. Its history prove_hat. Apart from the sanguinary nature of the games originally played therein,
such incidents attached to its past as these: that for scores of years th_own-gallows had stood at one corner; that in 1705 a woman who had murdere_er husband was half-strangled and then burnt there in the presence of te_housand spectators. Tradition reports that at a certain stage of the burnin_er heart burst and leapt out of her body, to the terror of them all, and tha_ot one of those ten thousand people ever cared particularly for hot roas_fter that. In addition to these old tragedies, pugilistic encounters almos_o the death had come off down to recent dates in that secluded arena,
entirely invisible to the outside world save by climbing to the top of th_nclosure, which few towns-people in the daily round of their lives ever too_he trouble to do. So that, though close to the turnpike-road, crimes might b_erpetrated there unseen at mid-day.
Some boys had latterly tried to impart gaiety to the ruin by using the centra_rena as a cricket-ground. But the game usually languished for the aforesai_eason—the dismal privacy which the earthen circle enforced, shutting ou_very appreciative passer's vision, every commendatory remark fro_utsiders—everything, except the sky; and to play at games in suc_ircumstances was like acting to an empty house. Possibly, too, the boys wer_imid, for some old people said that at certain moments in the summer time, i_road daylight, persons sitting with a book or dozing in the arena had, o_ifting their eyes, beheld the slopes lined with a gazing legion of Hadrian'_oldiery as if watching the gladiatorial combat; and had heard the roar o_heir excited voices, that the scene would remain but a moment, like _ightning flash, and then disappear.
It was related that there still remained under the south entrance excavate_ells for the reception of the wild animals and athletes who took part in th_ames. The arena was still smooth and circular, as if used for its origina_urpose not so very long ago. The sloping pathways by which spectators ha_scended to their seats were pathways yet. But the whole was grown over wit_rass, which now, at the end of summer, was bearded with withered bents tha_ormed waves under the brush of the wind, returning to the attentive ea_eolian modulations, and detaining for moments the flying globes o_histledown.
Henchard had chosen this spot as being the safest from observation which h_ould think of for meeting his long-lost wife, and at the same time as on_asily to be found by a stranger after nightfall. As Mayor of the town, with _eputation to keep up, he could not invite her to come to his house till som_efinite course had been decided on.
Just before eight he approached the deserted earth-work and entered by th_outh path which descended over the debris of the former dens. In a fe_oments he could discern a female figure creeping in by the great north gap,
or public gateway. They met in the middle of the arena. Neither spoke just a_irst—there was no necessity for speech—and the poor woman leant agains_enchard, who supported her in his arms.
"I don't drink," he said in a low, halting, apologetic voice. "You hear,
Susan?—I don't drink now—I haven't since that night." Those were his firs_ords.
He felt her bow her head in acknowledgment that she understood. After a minut_r two he again began:
"If I had known you were living, Susan! But there was every reason to suppos_ou and the child were dead and gone. I took every possible step to fin_ou—travelled—advertised. My opinion at last was that you had started for som_olony with that man, and had been drowned on your voyage. Why did you kee_ilent like this?"
"O Michael! because of him—what other reason could there be? I thought I owe_im faithfulness to the end of one of our lives—foolishly I believed there wa_omething solemn and binding in the bargain; I thought that even in honour _ared not desert him when he had paid so much for me in good faith. I meet yo_ow only as his widow—I consider myself that, and that I have no claim upo_ou. Had he not died I should never have come—never! Of that you may be sure."
"Ts-s-s! How could you be so simple?"
"I don't know. Yet it would have been very wicked—if I had not thought lik_hat!" said Susan, almost crying.
"Yes—yes—so it would. It is only that which makes me feel 'ee an innocen_oman. But—to lead me into this!"
"What, Michael?" she asked, alarmed.
"Why, this difficulty about our living together again, and Elizabeth-Jane. Sh_annot be told all—she would so despise us both that—I could not bear it!"
"That was why she was brought up in ignorance of you. I could not bear i_ither."
"Well—we must talk of a plan for keeping her in her present belief, an_etting matters straight in spite of it. You have heard I am in a large way o_usiness here—that I am Mayor of the town, and churchwarden, and I don't kno_hat all?"
"Yes," she murmured.
"These things, as well as the dread of the girl discovering our disgrace,
makes it necessary to act with extreme caution. So that I don't see how yo_wo can return openly to my house as the wife and daughter I once treate_adly, and banished from me; and there's the rub o't."
"We'll go away at once. I only came to see—"
"No, no, Susan; you are not to go—you mistake me!" he said with kindl_everity. "I have thought of this plan: that you and Elizabeth take a cottag_n the town as the widow Mrs. Newson and her daughter; that I meet you, cour_ou, and marry you. Elizabeth-Jane coming to my house as my step-daughter. Th_hing is so natural and easy that it is half done in thinking o't. This woul_eave my shady, headstrong, disgraceful life as a young man absolutel_nopened; the secret would be yours and mine only; and I should have th_leasure of seeing my own only child under my roof, as well as my wife."
"I am quite in your hands, Michael," she said meekly. "I came here for th_ake of Elizabeth; for myself, if you tell me to leave again to-morro_orning, and never come near you more, I am content to go."
"Now, now; we don't want to hear that," said Henchard gently. "Of course yo_on't leave again. Think over the plan I have proposed for a few hours; and i_ou can't hit upon a better one we'll adopt it. I have to be away for a day o_wo on business, unfortunately; but during that time you can get lodgings—th_nly ones in the town fit for you are those over the china-shop in Hig_treet—and you can also look for a cottage."
"If the lodgings are in High Street they are dear, I suppose?"
"Never mind—you MUST start genteel if our plan is to be carried out. Look t_e for money. Have you enough till I come back?"
"Quite," said she.
"And are you comfortable at the inn?"
"And the girl is quite safe from learning the shame of her case an_urs?—that's what makes me most anxious of all."
"You would be surprised to find how unlikely she is to dream of the truth. Ho_ould she ever suppose such a thing?"
"I like the idea of repeating our marriage," said Mrs. Henchard, after _ause. "It seems the only right course, after all this. Now I think I must g_ack to Elizabeth-Jane, and tell her that our kinsman, Mr. Henchard, kindl_ishes us to stay in the town."
"Very well—arrange that yourself. I'll go some way with you."
"No, no. Don't run any risk!" said his wife anxiously. "I can find my wa_ack—it is not late. Please let me go alone."
"Right," said Henchard. "But just one word. Do you forgive me, Susan?"
She murmured something; but seemed to find it difficult to frame her answer.
"Never mind—all in good time," said he. "Judge me by my future works—good-
He retreated, and stood at the upper side of the Amphitheatre while his wif_assed out through the lower way, and descended under the trees to the town.
Then Henchard himself went homeward, going so fast that by the time he reache_is door he was almost upon the heels of the unconscious woman from whom h_ad just parted. He watched her up the street, and turned into his house.