Returning from her appointment Lucetta saw a man waiting by the lamp neares_o her own door. When she stopped to go in he came and spoke to her. It wa_opp.
He begged her pardon for addressing her. But he had heard that Mr. Farfrae ha_een applied to by a neighbouring corn-merchant to recommend a workin_artner; if so he wished to offer himself. He could give good security, an_ad stated as much to Mr. Farfrae in a letter; but he would feel much oblige_f Lucetta would say a word in his favour to her husband.
"It is a thing I know nothing about," said Lucetta coldly.
"But you can testify to my trustworthiness better than anybody, ma'am," sai_opp. "I was in Jersey several years, and knew you there by sight."
"Indeed," she replied. "But I knew nothing of you."
"I think, ma'am, that a word or two from you would secure for me what I cove_ery much," he persisted.
She steadily refused to have anything to do with the affair, and cutting hi_hort, because of her anxiety to get indoors before her husband should mis_er, left him on the pavement.
He watched her till she had vanished, and then went home. When he got there h_at down in the fireless chimney corner looking at the iron dogs, and the woo_aid across them for heating the morning kettle. A movement upstairs disturbe_im, and Henchard came down from his bedroom, where he seemed to have bee_ummaging boxes.
"I wish," said Henchard, "you would do me a service, Jopp, now—to-night, _ean, if you can. Leave this at Mrs. Farfrae's for her. I should take i_yself, of course, but I don't wish to be seen there."
He handed a package in brown paper, sealed. Henchard had been as good as hi_ord. Immediately on coming indoors he had searched over his few belongings, and every scrap of Lucetta's writing that he possessed was here. Jop_ndifferently expressed his willingness.
"Well, how have ye got on to-day?" his lodger asked. "Any prospect of a_pening?"
"I am afraid not," said Jopp, who had not told the other of his application t_arfrae.
"There never will be in Casterbridge," declared Henchard decisively. "You mus_oam further afield." He said goodnight to Jopp, and returned to his own par_f the house.
Jopp sat on till his eyes were attracted by the shadow of the candle-snuff o_he wall, and looking at the original he found that it had formed itself int_ head like a red-hot cauliflower. Henchard's packet next met his gaze. H_new there had been something of the nature of wooing between Henchard and th_ow Mrs. Farfrae; and his vague ideas on the subject narrowed themselves dow_o these: Henchard had a parcel belonging to Mrs. Farfrae, and he had reason_or not returning that parcel to her in person. What could be inside it? So h_ent on and on till, animated by resentment at Lucetta's haughtiness, as h_hought it, and curiosity to learn if there were any weak sides to thi_ransaction with Henchard, he examined the package. The pen and all it_elations being awkward tools in Henchard's hands he had affixed the seal_ithout an impression, it never occurring to him that the efficacy of such _astening depended on this. Jopp was far less of a tyro; he lifted one of th_eals with his penknife, peeped in at the end thus opened, saw that the bundl_onsisted of letters; and, having satisfied himself thus far, sealed up th_nd again by simply softening the wax with the candle, and went off with th_arcel as requested.
His path was by the river-side at the foot of the town. Coming into the ligh_t the bridge which stood at the end of High Street he beheld lounging thereo_other Cuxsom and Nance Mockridge.
"We be just going down Mixen Lane way, to look into Peter's finger afor_reeping to bed," said Mrs. Cuxsom. "There's a fiddle and tambourine going o_here. Lord, what's all the world—do ye come along too, Jopp—'twon't hinder y_ive minutes."
Jopp had mostly kept himself out of this company, but present circumstance_ade him somewhat more reckless than usual, and without many words he decide_o go to his destination that way.
Though the upper part of Durnover was mainly composed of a curious congerie_f barns and farm-steads, there was a less picturesque side to the parish.
This was Mixen Lane, now in great part pulled down.
Mixen Lane was the Adullam of all the surrounding villages. It was the hiding- place of those who were in distress, and in debt, and trouble of every kind.
Farm-labourers and other peasants, who combined a little poaching with thei_arming, and a little brawling and bibbing with their poaching, foun_hemselves sooner or later in Mixen Lane. Rural mechanics too idle t_echanize, rural servants too rebellious to serve, drifted or were forced int_ixen Lane.
The lane and its surrounding thicket of thatched cottages stretched out like _pit into the moist and misty lowland. Much that was sad, much that was low, some things that were baneful, could be seen in Mixen Lane. Vice ran freely i_nd out certain of the doors in the neighbourhood; recklessness dwelt unde_he roof with the crooked chimney; shame in some bow-windows; theft (in time_f privation) in the thatched and mud-walled houses by the sallows. Eve_laughter had not been altogether unknown here. In a block of cottages up a_lley there might have been erected an altar to disease in years gone by. Suc_as Mixen Lane in the times when Henchard and Farfrae were Mayors.
Yet this mildewed leaf in the sturdy and flourishing Casterbridge plant la_lose to the open country; not a hundred yards from a row of noble elms, an_ommanding a view across the moor of airy uplands and corn-fields, an_ansions of the great. A brook divided the moor from the tenements, and t_utward view there was no way across it—no way to the houses but round abou_y the road. But under every householder's stairs there was kept a mysteriou_lank nine inches wide; which plank was a secret bridge.
If you, as one of those refugee householders, came in from business afte_ark—and this was the business time here—you stealthily crossed the moor, approached the border of the aforesaid brook, and whistled opposite the hous_o which you belonged. A shape thereupon made its appearance on the other sid_earing the bridge on end against the sky; it was lowered; you crossed, and _and helped you to land yourself, together with the pheasants and hare_athered from neighbouring manors. You sold them slily the next morning, an_he day after you stood before the magistrates with the eyes of all you_ympathizing neighbours concentrated on your back. You disappeared for a time; then you were again found quietly living in Mixen Lane.
Walking along the lane at dusk the stranger was struck by two or thre_eculiar features therein. One was an intermittent rumbling from the bac_remises of the inn half-way up; this meant a skittle alley. Another was th_xtensive prevalence of whistling in the various domiciles—a piped note o_ome kind coming from nearly every open door. Another was the frequency o_hite aprons over dingy gowns among the women around the doorways. A whit_pron is a suspicious vesture in situations where spotlessness is difficult; moreover, the industry and cleanliness which the white apron expressed wer_elied by the postures and gaits of the women who wore it—their knuckles bein_ostly on their hips (an attitude which lent them the aspect of two-handle_ugs), and their shoulders against door-posts; while there was a curiou_lacrity in the turn of each honest woman's head upon her neck and in th_wirl of her honest eyes, at any noise resembling a masculine footfall alon_he lane.
Yet amid so much that was bad needy respectability also found a home. Unde_ome of the roofs abode pure and virtuous souls whose presence there was du_o the iron hand of necessity, and to that alone. Families from decaye_illages—families of that once bulky, but now nearly extinct, section o_illage society called "liviers," or lifeholders—copyholders and others, whos_oof-trees had fallen for some reason or other, compelling them to quit th_ural spot that had been their home for generations—came here, unless the_hose to lie under a hedge by the wayside.
The inn called Peter's finger was the church of Mixen Lane.
It was centrally situate, as such places should be, and bore about the sam_ocial relation to the Three Mariners as the latter bore to the King's Arms.
At first sight the inn was so respectable as to be puzzling. The front doo_as kept shut, and the step was so clean that evidently but few person_ntered over its sanded surface. But at the corner of the public-house was a_lley, a mere slit, dividing it from the next building. Half-way up the alle_as a narrow door, shiny and paintless from the rub of infinite hands an_houlders. This was the actual entrance to the inn.
A pedestrian would be seen abstractedly passing along Mixen Lane; and then, i_ moment, he would vanish, causing the gazer to blink like Ashton at th_isappearance of Ravenswood. That abstracted pedestrian had edged into th_lit by the adroit fillip of his person sideways; from the slit he edged int_he tavern by a similar exercise of skill.
The company at the Three Mariners were persons of quality in comparison wit_he company which gathered here; though it must be admitted that the lowes_ringe of the Mariner's party touched the crest of Peter's at points. Waif_nd strays of all sorts loitered about here. The landlady was a virtuous woma_ho years ago had been unjustly sent to gaol as an accessory to something o_ther after the fact. She underwent her twelvemonth, and had worn a martyr'_ountenance ever since, except at times of meeting the constable wh_pprehended her, when she winked her eye.
To this house Jopp and his acquaintances had arrived. The settles on whic_hey sat down were thin and tall, their tops being guyed by pieces of twine t_ooks in the ceiling; for when the guests grew boisterous the settles woul_ock and overturn without some such security. The thunder of bowls echoed fro_he backyard; swingels hung behind the blower of the chimney; and ex-poacher_nd ex-gamekeepers, whom squires had persecuted without a cause, sat elbowin_ach other—men who in past times had met in fights under the moon, till laps_f sentences on the one part, and loss of favour and expulsion from service o_he other, brought them here together to a common level, where they sat calml_iscussing old times.
"Dost mind how you could jerk a trout ashore with a bramble, and not ruffl_he stream, Charl?" a deposed keeper was saying. "'Twas at that I caught 'e_nce, if you can mind?"
"That I can. But the worst larry for me was that pheasant business at Yalbur_ood. Your wife swore false that time, Joe—O, by Gad, she did—there's n_enying it."
"How was that?" asked Jopp.
"Why—Joe closed wi' me, and we rolled down together, close to his garde_edge. Hearing the noise, out ran his wife with the oven pyle, and it bein_ark under the trees she couldn't see which was uppermost. 'Where beest thee, Joe, under or top?' she screeched. 'O—under, by Gad!' says he. She then bega_o rap down upon my skull, back, and ribs with the pyle till we'd roll ove_gain. 'Where beest now, dear Joe, under or top?' she'd scream again. B_eorge, 'twas through her I was took! And then when we got up in hall sh_ware that the cock pheasant was one of her rearing, when 'twas not your bir_t all, Joe; 'twas Squire Brown's bird—that's whose 'twas—one that we'd picke_ff as we passed his wood, an hour afore. It did hurt my feelings to be s_ronged!… Ah well—'tis over now."
"I might have had 'ee days afore that," said the keeper. "I was within a fe_ards of 'ee dozens of times, with a sight more of birds than that poor one."
"Yes—'tis not our greatest doings that the world gets wind of," said th_urmity-woman, who, lately settled in this purlieu, sat among the rest. Havin_ravelled a great deal in her time she spoke with cosmopolitan largeness o_dea. It was she who presently asked Jopp what was the parcel he kept s_nugly under his arm.
"Ah, therein lies a grand secret," said Jopp. "It is the passion of love. T_hink that a woman should love one man so well, and hate another s_nmercifully."
"Who's the object of your meditation, sir?"
"One that stands high in this town. I'd like to shame her! Upon my life,
'twould be as good as a play to read her love-letters, the proud piece of sil_nd wax-work! For 'tis her love-letters that I've got here."
"Love letters? then let's hear 'em, good soul," said Mother Cuxsom. "Lord, d_e mind, Richard, what fools we used to be when we were younger? Getting _choolboy to write ours for us; and giving him a penny, do ye mind, not t_ell other folks what he'd put inside, do ye mind?"
By this time Jopp had pushed his finger under the seals, and unfastened th_etters, tumbling them over and picking up one here and there at random, whic_e read aloud. These passages soon began to uncover the secret which Lucett_ad so earnestly hoped to keep buried, though the epistles, being allusiv_nly, did not make it altogether plain.
"Mrs. Farfrae wrote that!" said Nance Mockridge. "'Tis a humbling thing fo_s, as respectable women, that one of the same sex could do it. And now she'_vowed herself to another man!"
"So much the better for her," said the aged furmity-woman. "Ah, I saved he_rom a real bad marriage, and she's never been the one to thank me."
"I say, what a good foundation for a skimmity-ride," said Nance.
"True," said Mrs. Cuxsom, reflecting. "'Tis as good a ground for a skimmity- ride as ever I knowed; and it ought not to be wasted. The last one seen i_asterbridge must have been ten years ago, if a day."
At this moment there was a shrill whistle, and the landlady said to the ma_ho had been called Charl, "'Tis Jim coming in. Would ye go and let down th_ridge for me?"
Without replying Charl and his comrade Joe rose, and receiving a lantern fro_er went out at the back door and down the garden-path, which ended abruptl_t the edge of the stream already mentioned. Beyond the stream was the ope_oor, from which a clammy breeze smote upon their faces as they advanced.
Taking up the board that had lain in readiness one of them lowered it acros_he water, and the instant its further end touched the ground footstep_ntered upon it, and there appeared from the shade a stalwart man with strap_ound his knees, a double-barrelled gun under his arm and some birds slung u_ehind him. They asked him if he had had much luck.
"Not much," he said indifferently. "All safe inside?"
Receiving a reply in the affirmative he went on inwards, the other_ithdrawing the bridge and beginning to retreat in his rear. Before, however, they had entered the house a cry of "Ahoy" from the moor led them to pause.
The cry was repeated. They pushed the lantern into an outhouse, and went bac_o the brink of the stream.
"Ahoy—is this the way to Casterbridge?" said some one from the other side.
"Not in particular," said Charl. "There's a river afore 'ee."
"I don't care—here's for through it!" said the man in the moor. "I've ha_ravelling enough for to-day."
"Stop a minute, then," said Charl, finding that the man was no enemy. "Joe, bring the plank and lantern; here's somebody that's lost his way. You shoul_ave kept along the turnpike road, friend, and not have strook across here."
"I should—as I see now. But I saw a light here, and says I to myself, that'_n outlying house, depend on't."
The plank was now lowered; and the stranger's form shaped itself from th_arkness. He was a middle-aged man, with hair and whiskers prematurely grey, and a broad and genial face. He had crossed on the plank without hesitation, and seemed to see nothing odd in the transit. He thanked them, and walke_etween them up the garden. "What place is this?" he asked, when they reache_he door.
"Ah, perhaps it will suit me to put up at. Now then, come in and wet you_histle at my expense for the lift over you have given me."
They followed him into the inn, where the increased light exhibited him as on_ho would stand higher in an estimate by the eye than in one by the ear. H_as dressed with a certain clumsy richness—his coat being furred, and his hea_overed by a cap of seal-skin, which, though the nights were chilly, must hav_een warm for the daytime, spring being somewhat advanced. In his hand h_arried a small mahogany case, strapped, and clamped with brass.
Apparently surprised at the kind of company which confronted him through th_itchen door, he at once abandoned his idea of putting up at the house; bu_aking the situation lightly, he called for glasses of the best, paid for the_s he stood in the passage, and turned to proceed on his way by the fron_oor. This was barred, and while the landlady was unfastening it th_onversation about the skimmington was continued in the sitting-room, an_eached his ears.
"What do they mean by a 'skimmity-ride'?" he asked.
"O, sir!" said the landlady, swinging her long earrings with deprecatin_odesty; "'tis a' old foolish thing they do in these parts when a man's wif_s—well, not too particularly his own. But as a respectable householder _on't encourage it.
"Still, are they going to do it shortly? It is a good sight to see, _uppose?"
"Well, sir!" she simpered. And then, bursting into naturalness, and glancin_rom the corner of her eye, "'Tis the funniest thing under the sun! And i_osts money."
"Ah! I remember hearing of some such thing. Now I shall be in Casterbridge fo_wo or three weeks to come, and should not mind seeing the performance. Wait _oment." He turned back, entered the sitting-room, and said, "Here, goo_olks; I should like to see the old custom you are talking of, and I don'_ind being something towards it—take that." He threw a sovereign on the tabl_nd returned to the landlady at the door, of whom, having inquired the wa_nto the town, he took his leave.
"There were more where that one came from," said Charl when the sovereign ha_een taken up and handed to the landlady for safe keeping. "By George! w_ught to have got a few more while we had him here."
"No, no," answered the landlady. "This is a respectable house, thank God! An_'ll have nothing done but what's honourable."
"Well," said Jopp; "now we'll consider the business begun, and will soon ge_t in train."
"We will!" said Nance. "A good laugh warms my heart more than a cordial, an_hat's the truth on't."
Jopp gathered up the letters, and it being now somewhat late he did no_ttempt to call at Farfrae's with them that night. He reached home, seale_hem up as before, and delivered the parcel at its address next morning.
Within an hour its contents were reduced to ashes by Lucetta, who, poor soul!
was inclined to fall down on her knees in thankfulness that at last n_vidence remained of the unlucky episode with Henchard in her past. For thoug_ers had been rather the laxity of inadvertence than of intention, tha_pisode, if known, was not the less likely to operate fatally between hersel_nd her husband.