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A Changed Man and Other Tales by Thomas Hardy

Part 6 out of 6

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The unlucky Baptista staved off the danger on this third occasion as
she had done on the previous two. But she formed a resolve that, if
the attack were once more to be repeated she would face a revelation-
-worse though that must now be than before she had attempted to
purchase silence by bribes. Her tormentors, never believing her
capable of acting upon such an intention, came again; but she shut
the door in their faces. They retreated, muttering something; but
she went to the back of the house, where David Heddegan was.

She looked at him, unconscious of all. The case was serious; she
knew that well; and all the more serious in that she liked him better
now than she had done at first. Yet, as she herself began to see,
the secret was one that was sure to disclose itself. Her name and
Charles's stood indelibly written in the registers; and though a
month only had passed as yet it was a wonder that his clandestine
union with her had not already been discovered by his friends. Thus
spurring herself to the inevitable, she spoke to Heddegan.

'David, come indoors. I have something to tell you.'

He hardly regarded her at first. She had discerned that during the
last week or two he had seemed preoccupied, as if some private
business harassed him. She repeated her request. He replied with a
sigh, 'Yes, certainly, mee deer.'

When they had reached the sitting-room and shut the door she
repeated, faintly, 'David, I have something to tell you--a sort of
tragedy I have concealed. You will hate me for having so far
deceived you; but perhaps my telling you voluntarily will make you
think a little better of me than you would do otherwise.'

'Tragedy?' he said, awakening to interest. 'Much you can know about
tragedies, mee deer, that have been in the world so short a time!'

She saw that he suspected nothing, and it made her task the harder.
But on she went steadily. 'It is about something that happened
before we were married,' she said.

'Indeed!'

'Not a very long time before--a short time. And it is about a
lover,' she faltered.

'I don't much mind that,' he said mildly. 'In truth, I was in hopes
'twas more.'

'In hopes!'

'Well, yes.'

This screwed her up to the necessary effort. 'I met my old
sweetheart. He scorned me, chid me, dared me, and I went and married
him. We were coming straight here to tell you all what we had done;
but he was drowned; and I thought I would say nothing about him: and
I married you, David, for the sake of peace and quietness. I've
tried to keep it from you, but have found I cannot. There--that's
the substance of it, and you can never, never forgive me, I am sure!'

She spoke desperately. But the old man, instead of turning black or
blue, or slaying her in his indignation, jumped up from his chair,
and began to caper around the room in quite an ecstatic emotion.

'O, happy thing! How well it falls out!' he exclaimed, snapping his,
fingers over his head. 'Ha-ha--the knot is cut--I see a way out of
my trouble--ha-ha!' She looked at him without uttering a sound,
till, as he still continued smiling joyfully, she said, 'O--what do
you mean! Is it done to torment me?'

'No--no! O, mee deer, your story helps me out of the most heart-
aching quandary a poor man ever found himself in! You see, it is
this--I'VE got a tragedy, too; and unless you had had one to tell, I
could never have seen my way to tell mine!'

'What is yours--what is it?' she asked, with altogether a new view of
things.

'Well--it is a bouncer; mine is a bouncer!' said he, looking on the
ground and wiping his eyes.

'Not worse than mine?'

'Well--that depends upon how you look at it. Yours had to do with
the past alone; and I don't mind it. You see, we've been married a
month, and it don't jar upon me as it would if we'd only been married
a day or two. Now mine refers to past, present, and future; so that-
-'

'Past, present, and future!' she murmured. 'It never occurred to me
that YOU had a tragedy, too.'

'But I have!' he said, shaking his head. 'In fact, four.'

'Then tell 'em!' cried the young woman.

'I will--I will. But be considerate, I beg 'ee, mee deer. Well--I
wasn't a bachelor when I married 'ee, any more than you were a
spinster. Just as you was a widow-woman, I was a widow-man.

'Ah!' said she, with some surprise. 'But is that all?--then we are
nicely balanced,' she added, relieved.

'No--it is not all. There's the point. I am not only a widower.'

'O, David!'

'I am a widower with four tragedies--that is to say, four strapping
girls--the eldest taller than you. Don't 'ee look so struck--dumb-
like! It fell out in this way. I knew the poor woman, their mother,
in Pen-zephyr for some years; and--to cut a long story short--I
privately married her at last, just before she died. I kept the
matter secret, but it is getting known among the people here by
degrees. I've long felt for the children--that it is my duty to have
them here, and do something for them. I have not had courage to
break it to 'ee, but I've seen lately that it would soon come to your
ears, and that hev worried me.'

'Are they educated?' said the ex-schoolmistress.

'No. I am sorry to say they have been much neglected; in truth, they
can hardly read. And so I thought that by marrying a young
schoolmistress I should get some one in the house who could teach
'em, and bring 'em into genteel condition, all for nothing. You see,
they are growed up too tall to be sent to school.'

'O, mercy!' she almost moaned. 'Four great girls to teach the
rudiments to, and have always in the house with me spelling over
their books; and I hate teaching, it kills me. I am bitterly
punished--I am, I am!'

'You'll get used to 'em, mee deer, and the balance of secrets--mine
against yours--will comfort your heart with a sense of justice. I
could send for 'em this week very well--and I will! In faith, I
could send this very day. Baptista, you have relieved me of all my
difficulty!'

Thus the interview ended, so far as this matter was concerned.
Baptista was too stupefied to say more, and when she went away to her
room she wept from very mortification at Mr. Heddegan's duplicity.
Education, the one thing she abhorred; the shame of it to delude a
young wife so!

The next meal came round. As they sat, Baptista would not suffer her
eyes to turn towards him. He did not attempt to intrude upon her
reserve, but every now and then looked under the table and chuckled
with satisfaction at the aspect of affairs. 'How very well matched
we be!' he said, comfortably.

Next day, when the steamer came in, Baptista saw her husband rush
down to meet it; and soon after there appeared at her door four tall,
hipless, shoulderless girls, dwindling in height and size from the
eldest to the youngest, like a row of Pan pipes; at the head of them
standing Heddegan. He smiled pleasantly through the grey fringe of
his whiskers and beard, and turning to the girls said, 'Now come
forrard, and shake hands properly with your stepmother.'

Thus she made their acquaintance, and he went out, leaving them
together. On examination the poor girls turned out to be not only
plain-looking, which she could have forgiven, but to have such a
lamentably meagre intellectual equipment as to be hopelessly
inadequate as companions. Even the eldest, almost her own age, could
only read with difficulty words of two syllables; and taste in dress
was beyond their comprehension. In the long vista of future years
she saw nothing but dreary drudgery at her detested old trade without
prospect of reward.

She went about quite despairing during the next few days--an
unpromising, unfortunate mood for a woman who had not been married
six weeks. From her parents she concealed everything. They had been
amongst the few acquaintances of Heddegan who knew nothing of his
secret, and were indignant enough when they saw such a ready-made
household foisted upon their only child. But she would not support
them in their remonstrances.

'No, you don't yet know all,' she said.

Thus Baptista had sense enough to see the retributive fairness of
this issue. For some time, whenever conversation arose between her
and Heddegan, which was not often, she always said, 'I am miserable,
and you know it. Yet I don't wish things to be otherwise.'

But one day when he asked, 'How do you like 'em now?' her answer was
unexpected. 'Much better than I did,' she said, quietly. 'I may
like them very much some day.'

This was the beginning of a serener season for the chastened spirit
of Baptista Heddegan. She had, in truth, discovered, underneath the
crust of uncouthness and meagre articulation which was due to their
Troglodytean existence, that her unwelcomed daughters had natures
that were unselfish almost to sublimity. The harsh discipline
accorded to their young lives before their mother's wrong had been
righted, had operated less to crush them than to lift them above all
personal ambition. They considered the world and its contents in a
purely objective way, and their own lot seemed only to affect them as
that of certain human beings among the rest, whose troubles they knew
rather than suffered.

This was such an entirely new way of regarding life to a woman of
Baptista's nature, that her attention, from being first arrested by
it, became deeply interested. By imperceptible pulses her heart
expanded in sympathy with theirs. The sentences of her tragi-comedy,
her life, confused till now, became clearer daily. That in humanity,
as exemplified by these girls, there was nothing to dislike, but
infinitely much to pity, she learnt with the lapse of each week in
their company. She grew to like the girls of unpromising exterior,
and from liking she got to love them; till they formed an unexpected
point of junction between her own and her husband's interests,
generating a sterling friendship at least, between a pair in whose
existence there had threatened to be neither friendship nor love.

October, 1885.

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