The road from Anglebury to Holmstoke is in general level; but there is one place where a sharp ascent breaks its monotony. Farmers homeward-bound from the former market-town, who trot all the rest of the way, walk their horses up this short incline.
The next evening, while the sun was yet bright, a handsome new gig, with a lemon-coloured body and red wheels, was spinning westward along the level highway at the heels of a powerful mare. The driver was a yeoman in the prime of life, cleanly shaven like an actor, his face being toned to that bluish-vermilion hue which so often graces a thriving farmer’s features when returning home after successful dealings in the town. Beside him sat a woman, many years his junior—almost, indeed, a girl. Her face too was fresh in colour, but it was of a totally different quality—soft and evanescent, like the light under a heap of rose-petals.
Few people travelled this way, for it was not a main road; and the long white riband of gravel that stretched before them was empty, save of one small scarce-moving speck, which presently resolved itself into the figure of boy, who was creeping on at a snail’s pace, and continually looking behind him—the heavy bundle he carried being some excuse for, if not the reason of, his dilatoriness. When the bouncing gig-party slowed at the bottom of the incline above mentioned, the pedestrian was only a few yards in front. Supporting the large bundle by putting one hand on his hip, he turned and looked straight at the farmer’s wife as though he would read her through and through, pacing along abreast of the horse.
The low sun was full in her face, rendering every feature, shade, and contour distinct, from the curve of her little nostril to the colour of her eyes. The farmer, though he seemed annoyed at the boy’s persistent presence, did not order him to get out of the way; and thus the lad preceded them, his hard gaze never leaving her, till they reached the top of the ascent, when the farmer trotted on with relief in his lineaments—having taken no outward notice of the boy whatever.
‘How that poor lad stared at me!’ said the young wife.
‘Yes, dear; I saw that he did.’
‘He is one of the village, I suppose?’
‘One of the neighbourhood. I think he lives with his mother a mile or two off.’
‘He knows who we are, no doubt?’
‘O yes. You must expect to be stared at just at first, my pretty Gertrude.’
‘I do,—though I think the poor boy may have looked at us in the hope we might relieve him of his heavy load, rather than from curiosity.’
‘O no,’ said her husband off-handedly. ‘These country lads will carry a hundredweight once they get it on their backs; besides his pack had more size than weight in it. Now, then, another mile and I shall be able to show you our house in the distance—if it is not too dark before we get there.’ The wheels spun round, and particles flew from their periphery as before, till a white house of ample dimensions revealed itself, with farm-buildings and ricks at the back.
Meanwhile the boy had quickened his pace, and turning up a by-lane some mile and half short of the white farmstead, ascended towards the leaner pastures, and so on to the cottage of his mother.
She had reached home after her day’s milking at the outlying dairy, and was washing cabbage at the doorway in the declining light. ‘Hold up the net a moment,’ she said, without preface, as the boy came up.
He flung down his bundle, held the edge of the cabbage-net, and as she filled its meshes with the dripping leaves she went on, ‘Well, did you see her?’
‘Yes; quite plain.’
‘Is she ladylike?’
‘Yes; and more. A lady complete.’
‘Is she young?’
‘Well, she’s growed up, and her ways be quite a woman’s.’
‘Of course. What colour is her hair and face?’
‘Her hair is lightish, and her face as comely as a live doll’s.’
‘Her eyes, then, are not dark like mine?’
‘No—of a bluish turn, and her mouth is very nice and red; and when she smiles, her teeth show white.’
‘Is she tall?’ said the woman sharply.
‘I couldn’t see. She was sitting down.’
‘Then do you go to Holmstoke church to-morrow morning: she’s sure to be there. Go early and notice her walking in, and come home and tell me if she’s taller than I.’
‘Very well, mother. But why don’t you go and see for yourself?’
‘I go to see her! I wouldn’t look up at her if she were to pass my window this instant. She was with Mr. Lodge, of course. What did he say or do?’
‘Just the same as usual.’
‘Took no notice of you?’
Next day the mother put a clean shirt on the boy, and started him off for Holmstoke church. He reached the ancient little pile when the door was just being opened, and he was the first to enter. Taking his seat by the font, he watched all the parishioners file in. The well-to-do Farmer Lodge came nearly last; and his young wife, who accompanied him, walked up the aisle with the shyness natural to a modest woman who had appeared thus for the first time. As all other eyes were fixed upon her, the youth’s stare was not noticed now.
When he reached home his mother said, ‘Well?’ before he had entered the room.
‘She is not tall. She is rather short,’ he replied.
‘Ah!’ said his mother, with satisfaction.
‘But she’s very pretty—very. In fact, she’s lovely.’
The youthful freshness of the yeoman’s wife had evidently made an impression even on the somewhat hard nature of the boy.
‘That’s all I want to hear,’ said his mother quickly. ‘Now, spread the table-cloth. The hare you caught is very tender; but mind that nobody catches you.—You’ve never told me what sort of hands she had.’
‘I have never seen ’em. She never took off her gloves.’
‘What did she wear this morning?’
‘A white bonnet and a silver-coloured gownd. It whewed and whistled so loud when it rubbed against the pews that the lady coloured up more than ever for very shame at the noise, and pulled it in to keep it from touching; but when she pushed into her seat, it whewed more than ever. Mr. Lodge, he seemed pleased, and his waistcoat stuck out, and his great golden seals hung like a lord’s; but she seemed to wish her noisy gownd anywhere but on her.’
‘Not she! However, that will do now.’
These descriptions of the newly-married couple were continued from time to time by the boy at his mother’s request, after any chance encounter he had had with them. But Rhoda Brook, though she might easily have seen young Mrs. Lodge for herself by walking a couple of miles, would never attempt an excursion towards the quarter where the farmhouse lay. Neither did she, at the daily milking in the dairyman’s yard on Lodge’s outlying second farm, ever speak on the subject of the recent marriage. The dairyman, who rented the cows of Lodge, and knew perfectly the tall milkmaid’s history, with manly kindliness always kept the gossip in the cow-barton from annoying Rhoda. But the atmosphere thereabout was full of the subject during the first days of Mrs. Lodge’s arrival; and from her boy’s description and the casual words of the other milkers, Rhoda Brook could raise a mental image of the unconscious Mrs Lodge that was realistic as a photograph.