The square was overlooked from its remoter corner by the house of which the young girl had spoken, a dignified residence of considerable size, having several windows on each floor. Inside one of these, on the first floor, the apartment being a large drawing-room, sat a lady, in appearance from twenty-eight to thirty years of age. The blinds were still undrawn, and the lady was absently surveying the weird scene without, her cheek resting on her hand. The room was unlit from within, but enough of the glare from the market-place entered it to reveal the lady’s face. She was what is called an interesting creature rather than a handsome woman; dark-eyed, thoughtful, and with sensitive lips.
If you haven’t already, be sure to read Chapter 1 of Thomas Hardy’s On the Western Circuit before reading on!
A man sauntered into the room from behind and came forward.
‘O, Edith, I didn’t see you,’ he said. ‘Why are you sitting here in the dark?’
‘I am looking at the fair,’ replied the lady in a languid voice.
‘Oh? Horrid nuisance every year! I wish it could be put a stop to’
‘I like it.’
‘H’m. There’s no accounting for taste.’
For a moment he gazed from the window with her, for politeness sake, and then went out again.
In a few minutes she rang.
‘Hasn’t Anna come in?’ asked Mrs. Harnham.
‘She ought to be in by this time. I meant her to go for ten minutes only.’
‘Shall I go and look for her, m’m?’ said the house-maid alertly.
‘No. It is not necessary: she is a good girl and will come soon.’
However, when the servant had gone Mrs. Harnham arose, went up to her room, cloaked and bonneted herself, and proceeded downstairs, where she found her husband.
‘I want to see the fair,’ she said; ‘and I am going to look for Anna. I have made myself responsible for her, and must see she comes to no harm. She ought to be indoors. Will you come with me?’
‘Oh, she’s all right. I saw her on one of those whirligig things, talking to her young man as I came in. But I’ll go if you wish, though I’d rather go a hundred miles the other way.’
‘Then please do so. I shall come to no harm alone.’
She left the house and entered the crowd which thronged the market-place, where she soon discovered Anna, seated on the revolving horse. As soon as it stopped Mrs. Harnham advanced and said severely, ‘Anna, how can you be such a wild girl? You were only to be out for ten minutes.’
Anna looked blank, and the young man, who had dropped into the background, came to her assistance.
‘Please don’t blame her,’ he said politely. ‘It is my fault that she has stayed. She looked so graceful on the horse that I induced her to go round again. I assure you that she has been quite safe.’
‘In that case I’ll leave her in your hands,’ said Mrs. Harnham, turning to retrace her steps.
But this for the moment it was not so easy to do. Something had attracted the crowd to a spot in their rear, and the wine-merchant’s wife, caught by its sway, found herself pressed against Anna’s acquaintance without power to move away. Their faces were within a few inches of each other, his breath fanned her cheek as well as Anna’s. They could do no other than smile at the accident; but neither spoke, and each waited passively. Mrs. Harnham then felt a man’s hand clasping her fingers, and from the look of consciousness on the young fellow’s face she knew the hand to be his: she also knew that from the position of the girl he had no other thought than that the imprisoned hand was Anna’s. What prompted her to refrain from undeceiving him she could hardly tell. Not content with holding the hand, he playfully slipped two of his fingers inside her glove, against her palm. Thus matters continued till the pressure lessened; but several minutes passed before the crowd thinned sufficiently to allow Mrs. Harnham to withdraw.
‘How did they get to know each other, I wonder?’ she mused as she retreated. ‘Anna is really very forward—and he very wicked and nice.’
She was so gently stirred with the stranger’s manner and voice, with the tenderness of his idle touch, that instead of re-entering the house she turned back again and observed the pair from a screened nook. Really she argued (being little less impulsive than Anna herself) it was very excusable in Anna to encourage him, however she might have contrived to make his acquaintance; he was so gentlemanly, so fascinating, had such beautiful eyes. The thought that he was several years her junior produced a reasonless sigh.
At length the couple turned from the roundabout towards the door of Mrs. Harnham’s house, and the young man could be heard saying that he would accompany her home. Anna, then, had found a lover, apparently a very devoted one. Mrs. Harnham was quite interested in him. When they drew near the door of the wine-merchant’s house, a comparatively deserted spot by this time, they stood invisible for a little while in the shadow of a wall, where they separated, Anna going on to the entrance, and her acquaintance returning across the square.
‘Anna,’ said Mrs. Harnham, coming up. ‘I’ve been looking at you! That young man kissed you at parting I am almost sure.’
‘Well,’ stammered Anna; ‘he said, if I didn’t mind—it would do me no harm, and, and, him a great deal of good!’
‘Ah, I thought so! And he was a stranger till to-night?’
‘Yet I warrant you told him your name and every thing about yourself?’
‘He asked me.’
‘But he didn’t tell you his?’
‘Yes ma’am, he did!’ cried Anna victoriously. ‘It is Charles Bradford, of London.’
‘Well, if he’s respectable, of course I’ve nothing to say against your knowing him,’ remarked her mistress, prepossessed, in spite of general principles, in the young man’s favour. ‘But I must reconsider all that, if he attempts to renew your acquaintance. A country-bred girl like you, who has never lived in Melchester till this month, who had hardly ever seen a black-coated man till you came here, to be so sharp as to capture a young Londoner like him!’
‘I didn’t capture him. I didn’t do anything,’ said Anna, in confusion.
When she was indoors and alone Mrs. Harnham thought what a well-bred and chivalrous young man Anna’s companion had seemed. There had been a magic in his wooing touch of her hand; and she wondered how he had come to be attracted by the girl.
The next morning the emotional Edith Harnham went to the usual week-day service in Melchester cathedral. In crossing the Close through the fog she again perceived him who had interested her the previous evening, gazing up thoughtfully at the high-piled architecture of the nave: and as soon as she had taken her seat he entered and sat down in a stall opposite hers. He did not particularly heed her; but Mrs. Harnham was continually occupying her eyes with him, and wondered more than ever what had attracted him in her unfledged maid-servant. The mistress was almost as unaccustomed as the maiden herself to the end-of-the-age young man, or she might have wondered less. Raye, having looked about him awhile, left abruptly, without regard to the service that was proceeding; and Mrs. Harnham—lonely, impressionable creature that she was—took no further interest in praising the Lord. She wished she had married a London man who knew the subtleties of love-making as they were evidently known to him who had mistakenly caressed her hand.