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Literature Post > Hardy, Thomas > The Well-Beloved > Chapter 11

The Well-Beloved by Hardy, Thomas - Chapter 11

2. II. SHE DRAWS CLOSE AND SATISFIES

He could not forget Mrs. Pine-Avon's eyes, though he remembered nothing
of her other facial details. They were round, inquiring, luminous.
How that chestnut hair of hers had shone: it required no tiara to set
it off, like that of the dowager he had seen there, who had put ten
thousand pounds upon her head to make herself look worse than she would
have appeared with the ninepenny muslin cap of a servant woman.

Now the question was, ought he to see her again? He had his doubts.
But, unfortunately for discretion, just when he was coming out of the
rooms he had encountered an old lady of seventy, his friend Mrs.
Brightwalton--the Honourable Mrs. Brightwalton--and she had hastily
asked him to dinner for the day after the morrow, stating in the honest
way he knew so well that she had heard he was out of town, or she would
have asked him two or three weeks ago. Now, of all social things that
Pierston liked it was to be asked to dinner off-hand, as a stopgap in
place of some bishop, earl, or Under-Secretary who couldn't come, and
when the invitation was supplemented by the tidings that the lady who
had so impressed him was to be one of the guests, he had promised
instantly.

At the dinner, he took down Mrs. Pine-Avon upon his arm and talked to
nobody else during the meal. Afterwards they kept apart awhile in the
drawing-room for form's sake; but eventually gravitated together again,
and finished the evening in each other's company. When, shortly after
eleven, he came away, he felt almost certain that within those luminous
grey eyes the One of his eternal fidelity had verily taken lodgings--
and for a long lease. But this was not all. At parting, he had,
almost involuntarily, given her hand a pressure of a peculiar and
indescribable kind; a little response from her, like a mere pulsation,
of the same sort, told him that the impression she had made upon him
was reciprocated. She was, in a word, willing to go on.

But was he able?

There had not been much harm in the flirtation thus far; but did she
know his history, the curse upon his nature?--that he was the Wandering
Jew of the love-world, how restlessly ideal his fancies were, how the
artist in him had consumed the wooer, how he was in constant dread lest
he should wrong some woman twice as good as himself by seeming to mean
what he fain would mean but could not, how useless he was likely to be
for practical steps towards householding, though he was all the while
pining for domestic life. He was now over forty, she was probably
thirty; and he dared not make unmeaning love with the careless
selfishness of a younger man. It was unfair to go further without
telling her, even though, hitherto, such explicitness had not been
absolutely demanded.

He determined to call immediately on the New Incarnation.

She lived not far from the long, fashionable Hamptonshire Square, and
he went thither with expectations of having a highly emotional time, at
least. But somehow the very bell-pull seemed cold, although she had so
earnestly asked him to come.

As the house spoke, so spoke the occupant, much to the astonishment of
the sculptor. The doors he passed through seemed as if they had not
been opened for a month; and entering the large drawing-room, he
beheld, in an arm-chair, in the far distance, a lady whom he journeyed
across the carpet to reach, and ultimately did reach. To be sure it
was Mrs. Nichola Pine-Avon, but frosted over indescribably. Raising
her eyes in a slightly inquiring manner from the book she was reading,
she leant back in the chair, as if soaking herself in luxurious
sensations which had nothing to do with him, and replied to his
greeting with a few commonplace words.

The unfortunate Jocelyn, though recuperative to a degree, was at first
terribly upset by this reception. He had distinctly begun to love
Nichola, and he felt sick and almost resentful. But happily his
affection was incipient as yet, and a sudden sense of the ridiculous in
his own position carried him to the verge of risibility during the
scene. She signified a chair, and began the critical study of some
rings she wore.

They talked over the day's news, and then an organ began to grind
outside. The tune was a rollicking air he had heard at some music-
hall; and, by way of a diversion, he asked her if she knew the
composition.

'No, I don't!' she replied.

'Now, I'll tell you all about it,' said he gravely. 'It is based on a
sound old melody called "The Jilt's Hornpipe." Just as they turn
Madeira into port in the space of a single night, so this old air has
been taken and doctored, and twisted about, and brought out as a new
popular ditty.'

'Indeed!'

'If you are in the habit of going much to the music-halls or the
burlesque theatres--'

'Yes?'

'You would find this is often done, with excellent effect.'

She thawed a little, and then they went on to talk about her house,
which had been newly painted, and decorated with greenish-blue satin up
to the height of a person's head--an arrangement that somewhat improved
her slightly faded, though still pretty, face, and was helped by the
awnings over the windows.

'Yes; I have had my house some years,' she observed complacently, 'and
I like it better every year.'

'Don't you feel lonely in it sometimes?'

'O never!'

However, before he rose she grew friendly to some degree, and when he
left, just after the arrival of three opportune young ladies she seemed
regretful. She asked him to come again; and he thought he would tell
the truth. 'No: I shall not care to come again,' he answered, in a
tone inaudible to the young ladies.

She followed him to the door. 'What an uncivil thing to say!' she
murmured in surprise.

'It is rather uncivil. Good-bye,' said Pierston.

As a punishment she did not ring the bell, but left him to find his way
out as he could. 'Now what the devil this means I cannot tell,' he
said to himself, reflecting stock-still for a moment on the stairs.
And yet the meaning was staring him in the face.

Meanwhile one of the three young ladies had said, 'What interesting man
was that, with his lovely head of hair? I saw him at Lady
Channelcliffe's the other night.'

'Jocelyn Pierston.'

'O, Nichola, that IS too bad! To let him go in that shabby way, when I
would have given anything to know him! I have wanted to know him ever
since I found out how much his experiences had dictated his statuary,
and I discovered them by seeing in a Jersey paper of the marriage of a
person supposed to be his wife, who ran off with him many years ago,
don't you know, and then wouldn't marry him, in obedience to some novel
social principles she had invented for herself.'

'O! didn't he marry her?' said Mrs. Pine-Avon, with a start. 'Why, I
heard only yesterday that he did, though they have lived apart ever
since.'

'Quite a mistake,' said the young lady. 'How I wish I could run after
him!'

But Jocelyn was receding from the pretty widow's house with long
strides. He went out very little during the next few days, but about a
week later he kept an engagement to dine with Lady Iris Speedwell, whom
he never neglected, because she was the brightest hostess in London.

By some accident he arrived rather early. Lady Iris had left the
drawing-room for a moment to see that all was right in the dining-room,
and when he was shown in there stood alone in the lamplight Nichola
Pine-Avon. She had been the first arrival. He had not in the least
expected to meet her there, further than that, in a general sense, at
Lady Iris's you expected to meet everybody.

She had just come out of the cloak-room, and was so tender and even
apologetic that he had not the heart to be other than friendly. As the
other guests dropped in, the pair retreated into a shady corner, and
she talked beside him till all moved off for the eating and drinking.

He had not been appointed to take her across to the dining-room, but at
the table found her exactly opposite. She looked very charming between
the candles, and then suddenly it dawned upon him that her previous
manner must have originated in some false report about Marcia, of whose
existence he had not heard for years. Anyhow, he was not disposed to
resent an inexplicability in womankind, having found that it usually
arose independently of fact, reason, probability, or his own deserts.

So he dined on, catching her eyes and the few pretty words she made
opportunity to project across the table to him now and then. He was
courteously responsive only, but Mrs. Pine-Avon herself distinctly made
advances. He re-admired her, while at the same time her conduct in her
own house had been enough to check his confidence--enough even to make
him doubt if the Well-Beloved really resided within those contours, or
had ever been more than the most transitory passenger through that
interesting and accomplished soul.

He was pondering this question, yet growing decidedly moved by the
playful pathos of her attitude when, by chance, searching his pocket
for his handkerchief, something crackled, and he felt there an unopened
letter, which had arrived at the moment he was leaving his house, and
he had slipped into his coat to read in the cab as he drove along.
Pierston drew it sufficiently forth to observe by the post-mark that it
came from his natal isle. Having hardly a correspondent in that part
of the world now he began to conjecture on the possible sender.

The lady on his right, whom he had brought in, was a leading actress of
the town--indeed, of the United Kingdom and America, for that matter--a
creature in airy clothing, translucent, like a balsam or sea-anemone,
without shadows, and in movement as responsive as some highly
lubricated, many-wired machine, which, if one presses a particular
spring, flies open and reveals its works. The spring in the present
case was the artistic commendation she deserved and craved. At this
particular moment she was engaged with the man on her own right, a
representative of Family, who talked positively and hollowly, as if
shouting down a vista of five hundred years from the Feudal past. The
lady on Jocelyn's left, wife of a Lord Justice of Appeal, was in like
manner talking to her companion on the outer side; so that, for the
time, he was left to himself. He took advantage of the opportunity,
drew out his letter, and read it as it lay upon his napkin, nobody
observing him, so far as he was aware.

It came from the wife of one of his father's former workmen, and was
concerning her son, whom she begged Jocelyn to recommend as candidate
for some post in town that she wished him to fill. But the end of the
letter was what arrested him--

'You will be sorry to hear, Sir, that dear little Avice Caro, as we
used to call her in her maiden days, is dead. She married her cousin,
if you do mind, and went away from here for a good-few years, but was
left a widow, and came back a twelvemonth ago; since when she faltered
and faltered, and now she is gone.'