Such was the state of things when the current affairs of Casterbridge wer_nterrupted by an event of such magnitude that its influence reached to th_owest social stratum there, stirring the depths of its society simultaneousl_ith the preparations for the skimmington. It was one of those excitement_hich, when they move a country town, leave permanent mark upon it_hronicles, as a warm summer permanently marks the ring in the tree-trun_orresponding to its date.
A Royal Personage was about to pass through the borough on his course furthe_est, to inaugurate an immense engineering work out that way. He had consente_o halt half-an-hour or so in the town, and to receive an address from th_orporation of Casterbridge, which, as a representative centre of husbandry, wished thus to express its sense of the great services he had rendered t_gricultural science and economics, by his zealous promotion of designs fo_lacing the art of farming on a more scientific footing.
Royalty had not been seen in Casterbridge since the days of the third Kin_eorge, and then only by candlelight for a few minutes, when that monarch, o_ night-journey, had stopped to change horses at the King's Arms. Th_nhabitants therefore decided to make a thorough fete carillonee of th_nwonted occasion. Half-an-hour's pause was not long, it is true; but muc_ight be done in it by a judicious grouping of incidents, above all, if th_eather were fine.
The address was prepared on parchment by an artist who was handy at ornamenta_ettering, and was laid on with the best gold-leaf and colours that the sign- painter had in his shop. The Council had met on the Tuesday before th_ppointed day, to arrange the details of the procedure. While they wer_itting, the door of the Council Chamber standing open, they heard a heav_ootstep coming up the stairs. It advanced along the passage, and Henchar_ntered the room, in clothes of frayed and threadbare shabbiness, the ver_lothes which he had used to wear in the primal days when he had sat amon_hem.
"I have a feeling," he said, advancing to the table and laying his hand upo_he green cloth, "that I should like to join ye in this reception of ou_llustrious visitor. I suppose I could walk with the rest?"
Embarrassed glances were exchanged by the Council and Grower nearly ate th_nd of his quill-pen off, so gnawed he it during the silence. Farfrae th_oung Mayor, who by virtue of his office sat in the large chair, intuitivel_aught the sense of the meeting, and as spokesman was obliged to utter it, glad as he would have been that the duty should have fallen to another tongue.
"I hardly see that it would be proper, Mr. Henchard," said he. "The Counci_re the Council, and as ye are no longer one of the body, there would be a_rregularity in the proceeding. If ye were included, why not others?"
"I have a particular reason for wishing to assist at the ceremony."
Farfrae looked round. "I think I have expressed the feeling of the Council,"
"Yes, yes," from Dr. Bath, Lawyer Long, Alderman Tubber, and several more.
"Then I am not to be allowed to have anything to do with it officially?"
"I am afraid so; it is out of the question, indeed. But of course you can se_he doings full well, such as they are to be, like the rest of th_pectators."
Henchard did not reply to that very obvious suggestion, and, turning on hi_eel, went away.
It had been only a passing fancy of his, but opposition crystallized it into _etermination. "I'll welcome his Royal Highness, or nobody shall!" he wen_bout saying. "I am not going to be sat upon by Farfrae, or any of the rest o_he paltry crew! You shall see."
The eventful morning was bright, a full-faced sun confronting early window- gazers eastward, and all perceived (for they were practised in weather-lore) that there was permanence in the glow. Visitors soon began to flock in fro_ounty houses, villages, remote copses, and lonely uplands, the latter i_iled boots and tilt bonnets, to see the reception, or if not to see it, a_ny rate to be near it. There was hardly a workman in the town who did not pu_ clean shirt on. Solomon Longways, Christopher Coney, Buzzford, and the res_f that fraternity, showed their sense of the occasion by advancing thei_ustomary eleven o'clock pint to half-past ten; from which they found _ifficulty in getting back to the proper hour for several days.
Henchard had determined to do no work that day. He primed himself in th_orning with a glass of rum, and walking down the street met Elizabeth-Jane, whom he had not seen for a week. "It was lucky," he said to her, "my twenty- one years had expired before this came on, or I should never have had th_erve to carry it out."
"Carry out what?" said she, alarmed.
"This welcome I am going to give our Royal visitor."
She was perplexed. "Shall we go and see it together?" she said.
"See it! I have other fish to fry. You see it. It will be worth seeing!"
She could do nothing to elucidate this, and decked herself out with a heav_eart. As the appointed time drew near she got sight again of her stepfather.
She thought he was going to the Three Mariners; but no, he elbowed his wa_hrough the gay throng to the shop of Woolfrey, the draper. She waited in th_rowd without.
In a few minutes he emerged, wearing, to her surprise, a brilliant rosette, while more surprising still, in his hand he carried a flag of somewhat homel_onstruction, formed by tacking one of the small Union Jacks, which abounde_n the town to-day, to the end of a deal wand—probably the roller from a piec_f calico. Henchard rolled up his flag on the doorstep, put it under his arm, and went down the street.
Suddenly the taller members of the crowd turned their heads, and the shorte_tood on tiptoe. It was said that the Royal cortege approached. The railwa_ad stretched out an arm towards Casterbridge at this time, but had no_eached it by several miles as yet; so that the intervening distance, as wel_s the remainder of the journey, was to be traversed by road in the ol_ashion. People thus waited—the county families in their carriages, the masse_n foot—and watched the far-stretching London highway to the ringing of bell_nd chatter of tongues.
From the background Elizabeth-Jane watched the scene. Some seats had bee_rranged from which ladies could witness the spectacle, and the front seat wa_ccupied by Lucetta, the Mayor's wife, just at present. In the road under he_yes stood Henchard. She appeared so bright and pretty that, as it seemed, h_as experiencing the momentary weakness of wishing for her notice. But he wa_ar from attractive to a woman's eye, ruled as that is so largely by th_uperficies of things. He was not only a journeyman, unable to appear as h_ormerly had appeared, but he disdained to appear as well as he might.
Everybody else, from the Mayor to the washerwoman, shone in new vestur_ccording to means; but Henchard had doggedly retained the fretted an_eather-beaten garments of bygone years.
Hence, alas, this occurred: Lucetta's eyes slid over him to this side and t_hat without anchoring on his features—as gaily dressed women's eyes will to_ften do on such occasions. Her manner signified quite plainly that she mean_o know him in public no more.
But she was never tired of watching Donald, as he stood in animated convers_ith his friends a few yards off, wearing round his young neck the officia_old chain with great square links, like that round the Royal unicorn. Ever_rifling emotion that her husband showed as he talked had its reflex on he_ace and lips, which moved in little duplicates to his. She was living hi_art rather than her own, and cared for no one's situation but Farfrae's tha_ay.
At length a man stationed at the furthest turn of the high road, namely, o_he second bridge of which mention has been made, gave a signal, and th_orporation in their robes proceeded from the front of the Town Hall to th_rchway erected at the entrance to the town. The carriages containing th_oyal visitor and his suite arrived at the spot in a cloud of dust, _rocession was formed, and the whole came on to the Town Hall at a walkin_ace.
This spot was the centre of interest. There were a few clear yards in front o_he Royal carriage, sanded; and into this space a man stepped before any on_ould prevent him. It was Henchard. He had unrolled his private flag, an_emoving his hat he staggered to the side of the slowing vehicle, waving th_nion Jack to and fro with his left hand while he blandly held out his righ_o the Illustrious Personage.
All the ladies said with bated breath, "O, look there!" and Lucetta was read_o faint. Elizabeth-Jane peeped through the shoulders of those in front, sa_hat it was, and was terrified; and then her interest in the spectacle as _trange phenomenon got the better of her fear.
Farfrae, with Mayoral authority, immediately rose to the occasion. He seize_enchard by the shoulder, dragged him back, and told him roughly to be off.
Henchard's eyes met his, and Farfrae observed the fierce light in them despit_is excitement and irritation. For a moment Henchard stood his ground rigidly; then by an unaccountable impulse gave way and retired. Farfrae glanced to th_adies' gallery, and saw that his Calphurnia's cheek was pale.
"Why—it is your husband's old patron!" said Mrs. Blowbody, a lady of th_eighbourhood who sat beside Lucetta.
"Patron!" said Donald's wife with quick indignation.
"Do you say the man is an acquaintance of Mr. Farfrae's?" observed Mrs. Bath, the physician's wife, a new-comer to the town through her recent marriage wit_he doctor.
"He works for my husband," said Lucetta.
"Oh—is that all? They have been saying to me that it was through him you_usband first got a footing in Casterbridge. What stories people will tell!"
"They will indeed. It was not so at all. Donald's genius would have enable_im to get a footing anywhere, without anybody's help! He would have been jus_he same if there had been no Henchard in the world!"
It was partly Lucetta's ignorance of the circumstances of Donald's arriva_hich led her to speak thus, partly the sensation that everybody seemed ben_n snubbing her at this triumphant time. The incident had occupied but a fe_oments, but it was necessarily witnessed by the Royal Personage, who, however, with practised tact affected not to have noticed anything unusual. H_lighted, the Mayor advanced, the address was read; the Illustrious Personag_eplied, then said a few words to Farfrae, and shook hands with Lucetta as th_ayor's wife. The ceremony occupied but a few minutes, and the carriage_attled heavily as Pharaoh's chariots down Corn Street and out upon th_udmouth Road, in continuation of the journey coastward.
In the crowd stood Coney, Buzzford, and Longways "Some difference between hi_ow and when he zung at the Dree Mariners," said the first. "'Tis wonderfu_ow he could get a lady of her quality to go snacks wi' en in such quic_ime."
"True. Yet how folk do worship fine clothes! Now there's a better-lookin_oman than she that nobody notices at all, because she's akin to that hontis_ellow Henchard."
"I could worship ye, Buzz, for saying that," remarked Nance Mockridge. "I d_ike to see the trimming pulled off such Christmas candles. I am quite unequa_o the part of villain myself, or I'd gi'e all my small silver to see tha_ady toppered… .And perhaps I shall soon," she added significantly.
"That's not a noble passiont for a 'oman to keep up," said Longways.
Nance did not reply, but every one knew what she meant. The ideas diffused b_he reading of Lucetta's letters at Peter's finger had condensed into _candal, which was spreading like a miasmatic fog through Mixen Lane, an_hence up the back streets of Casterbridge.
The mixed assemblage of idlers known to each other presently fell apart int_wo bands by a process of natural selection, the frequenters of Peter's Finge_oing off Mixen Lanewards, where most of them lived, while Coney, Buzzford, Longways, and that connection remained in the street.
"You know what's brewing down there, I suppose?" said Buzzford mysteriously t_he others.
Coney looked at him. "Not the skimmity-ride?"
"I have my doubts if it will be carried out," said Longways. "If they ar_etting it up they are keeping it mighty close.
"I heard they were thinking of it a fortnight ago, at all events."
"If I were sure o't I'd lay information," said Longways emphatically. "'Ti_oo rough a joke, and apt to wake riots in towns. We know that the Scotchma_s a right enough man, and that his lady has been a right enough 'oman sinc_he came here, and if there was anything wrong about her afore, that's thei_usiness, not ours."
Coney reflected. Farfrae was still liked in the community; but it must b_wned that, as the Mayor and man of money, engrossed with affairs an_mbitions, he had lost in the eyes of the poorer inhabitants something of tha_ondrous charm which he had had for them as a light-hearted penniless youn_an, who sang ditties as readily as the birds in the trees. Hence the anxiet_o keep him from annoyance showed not quite the ardour that would hav_nimated it in former days.
"Suppose we make inquiration into it, Christopher," continued Longways; "an_f we find there's really anything in it, drop a letter to them mos_oncerned, and advise 'em to keep out of the way?"
This course was decided on, and the group separated, Buzzford saying to Coney,
"Come, my ancient friend; let's move on. There's nothing more to see here."
These well-intentioned ones would have been surprised had they known how rip_he great jocular plot really was. "Yes, to-night," Jopp had said to th_eter's party at the corner of Mixen Lane. "As a wind-up to the Royal visi_he hit will be all the more pat by reason of their great elevation to-day."
To him, at least, it was not a joke, but a retaliation.