On the Western
Circuit by Thomas Hardy
The man who played the disturbing part in the two quiet lives
hereafter depicted--no great man, in any sense, by the way--first had
knowledge of them on an October evening, in the city of Melchester.
He had been standing in the Close, vainly endeavouring to gain amid
the darkness a glimpse of the most homogeneous pile of mediaeval
architecture in England, which towered and tapered from the damp and
level sward in front of him. While he stood the presence of the
Cathedral walls was revealed rather by the ear than by the eyes; he
could not see them, but they reflected sharply a roar of sound which
entered the Close by a street leading from the city square, and,
falling upon the building, was flung back upon him.
He postponed till the morrow his attempt to examine the deserted
edifice, and turned his attention to the noise. It was compounded of
steam barrel-organs, the clanging of gongs, the ringing of hand-
bells, the clack of rattles, and the undistinguishable shouts of men.
A lurid light hung in the air in the direction of the tumult.
Thitherward he went, passing under the arched gateway, along a
straight street, and into the square.
He might have searched Europe over for a greater contrast between
juxtaposed scenes. The spectacle was that of the eighth chasm of the
Inferno as to colour and flame, and, as to mirth, a development of
the Homeric heaven. A smoky glare, of the complexion of brass-
filings, ascended from the fiery tongues of innumerable naphtha lamps
affixed to booths, stalls, and other temporary erections which
crowded the spacious market-square. In front of this irradiation
scores of human figures, more or less in profile, were darting
athwart and across, up, down, and around, like gnats against a
Their motions were so rhythmical that they seemed to be moved by
machinery. And it presently appeared that they were moved by
machinery indeed; the figures being those of the patrons of swings,
see-saws, flying-leaps, above all of the three steam roundabouts
which occupied the centre of the position. It was from the latter
that the din of steam-organs came.
Throbbing humanity in full light was, on second thoughts, better than
architecture in the dark. The young man, lighting a short pipe, and
putting his hat on one side and one hand in his pocket, to throw
himself into harmony with his new environment, drew near to the
largest and most patronized of the steam circuses, as the roundabouts
were called by their owners. This was one of brilliant finish, and
it was now in full revolution. The musical instrument around which
and to whose tones the riders revolved, directed its trumpet-mouths
of brass upon the young man, and the long plate-glass mirrors set at
angles, which revolved with the machine, flashed the gyrating
personages and hobby horses kaleidoscopically into his eyes.
It could now be seen that he was unlike the majority of the crowd. A
gentlemanly young fellow, one of the species found in large towns
only, and London particularly, built on delicate lines, well, though
not fashionably dressed, he appeared to belong to the professional
class; he had nothing square or practical about his look, much that
was curvilinear and sensuous. Indeed, some would have called him a
man not altogether typical of the middle-class male of a century
wherein sordid ambition is the master-passion that seems to be taking
the time-honoured place of love.
The revolving figures passed before his eyes with an unexpected and
quiet grace in a throng whose natural movements did not suggest
gracefulness or quietude as a rule. By some contrivance there was
imparted to each of the hobby-horses a motion which was really the
triumph and perfection of roundabout inventiveness--a galloping rise
and fall, so timed that, of each pair of steeds, one was on the
spring while the other was on the pitch. The riders were quite
fascinated by these equine undulations in this most delightful
holiday-game of our times. There were riders as young as six, and as
old as sixty years, with every age between. At first it was
difficult to catch a personality, but by and by the observer's eyes
centred on the prettiest girl out of the several pretty ones
It was not that one with the light frock and light hat whom he had
been at first attracted by; no, it was the one with the black cape,
grey skirt, light gloves and--no, not even she, but the one behind
her; she with the crimson skirt, dark jacket, brown hat and brown
gloves. Unmistakably that was the prettiest girl.
Having finally selected her, this idle spectator studied her as well
as he was able during each of her brief transits across his visual
field. She was absolutely unconscious of everything save the act of
riding: her features were rapt in an ecstatic dreaminess; for the
moment she did not know her age or her history or her lineaments,
much less her troubles. He himself was full of vague latter-day
glooms and popular melancholies, and it was a refreshing sensation to
behold this young thing then and there, absolutely as happy as if she
were in a Paradise.
Dreading the moment when the inexorable stoker, grimily lurking
behind the glittering rococo-work, should decide that this set of
riders had had their pennyworth, and bring the whole concern of
steam-engine, horses, mirrors, trumpets, drums, cymbals, and such-
like to pause and silence, he waited for her every reappearance,
glancing indifferently over the intervening forms, including the two
plainer girls, the old woman and child, the two youngsters, the
newly-married couple, the old man with a clay pipe, the sparkish
youth with a ring, the young ladies in the chariot, the pair of
journeyman-carpenters, and others, till his select country beauty
followed on again in her place. He had never seen a fairer product
of nature, and at each round she made a deeper mark in his
sentiments. The stoppage then came, and the sighs of the riders were
He moved round to the place at which he reckoned she would alight;
but she retained her seat. The empty saddles began to refill, and
she plainly was deciding to have another turn. The young man drew up
to the side of her steed, and pleasantly asked her if she had enjoyed
'O yes!' she said, with dancing eyes. 'It has been quite unlike
anything I have ever felt in my life before!'
It was not difficult to fall into conversation with her. Unreserved-
-too unreserved--by nature, she was not experienced enough to be
reserved by art, and after a little coaxing she answered his remarks
readily. She had come to live in Melchester from a village on the
Great Plain, and this was the first time that she had ever seen a
steam-circus; she could not understand how such wonderful machines
were made. She had come to the city on the invitation of Mrs.
Harnham, who had taken her into her household to train her as a
servant, if she showed any aptitude. Mrs. Harnham was a young lady
who before she married had been Miss Edith White, living in the
country near the speaker's cottage; she was now very kind to her
through knowing her in childhood so well. She was even taking the
trouble to educate her. Mrs. Harnham was the only friend she had in
the world, and being without children had wished to have her near her
in preference to anybody else, though she had only lately come;
allowed her to do almost as she liked, and to have a holiday whenever
she asked for it. The husband of this kind young lady was a rich
wine-merchant of the town, but Mrs. Harnham did not care much about
him. In the daytime you could see the house from where they were
talking. She, the speaker, liked Melchester better than the lonely
country, and she was going to have a new hat for next Sunday that was
to cost fifteen and ninepence.
Then she inquired of her acquaintance where he lived, and he told her
in London, that ancient and smoky city, where everybody lived who
lived at all, and died because they could not live there. He came
into Wessex two or three times a year for professional reasons; he
had arrived from Wintoncester yesterday, and was going on into the
next county in a day or two. For one thing he did like the country
better than the town, and it was because it contained such girls as
Then the pleasure-machine started again, and, to the light-hearted
girl, the figure of the handsome young man, the market-square with
its lights and crowd, the houses beyond, and the world at large,
began moving round as before, countermoving in the revolving mirrors
on her right hand, she being as it were the fixed point in an
undulating, dazzling, lurid universe, in which loomed forward most
prominently of all the form of her late interlocutor. Each time that
she approached the half of her orbit that lay nearest him they gazed
at each other with smiles, and with that unmistakable expression
which means so little at the moment, yet so often leads up to
passion, heart-ache, union, disunion, devotion, overpopulation,
drudgery, content, resignation, despair.
When the horses slowed anew he stepped to her side and proposed
another heat. 'Hang the expense for once,' he said. 'I'll pay!'
She laughed till the tears came.
'Why do you laugh, dear?' said he.
'Because--you are so genteel that you must have plenty of money, and
only say that for fun!' she returned.
'Ha-ha!' laughed the young man in unison, and gallantly producing his
money she was enabled to whirl on again.
As he stood smiling there in the motley crowd, with his pipe in his
hand, and clad in the rough pea-jacket and wideawake that he had put
on for his stroll, who would have supposed him to be Charles Bradford
Raye, Esquire, stuff-gownsman, educated at Wintoncester, called to
the Bar at Lincoln's-Inn, now going the Western Circuit, merely
detained in Melchester by a small arbitration after his brethren had
moved on to the next county-town?
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.
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
'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
'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
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
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
'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
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
The calendar at Melchester had been light, occupying the court only a
few hours; and the assizes at Casterbridge, the next county-town on
the Western Circuit, having no business for Raye, he had not gone
thither. At the next town after that they did not open till the
following Monday, trials to begin on Tuesday morning. In the natural
order of things Raye would have arrived at the latter place on Monday
afternoon; but it was not till the middle of Wednesday that his gown
and grey wig, curled in tiers, in the best fashion of Assyrian bas-
reliefs, were seen blowing and bobbing behind him as he hastily
walked up the High Street from his lodgings. But though he entered
the assize building there was nothing for him to do, and sitting at
the blue baize table in the well of the court, he mended pens with a
mind far away from the case in progress. Thoughts of unpremeditated
conduct, of which a week earlier he would not have believed himself
capable, threw him into a mood of dissatisfied depression.
He had contrived to see again the pretty rural maiden Anna, the day
after the fair, had walked out of the city with her to the earthworks
of Old Melchester, and feeling a violent fancy for her, had remained
in Melchester all Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday; by persuasion
obtaining walks and meetings with the girl six or seven times during
the interval; had in brief won her, body and soul.
He supposed it must have been owing to the seclusion in which he had
lived of late in town that he had given way so unrestrainedly to a
passion for an artless creature whose inexperience had, from the
first, led her to place herself unreservedly in his hands. Much he
deplored trifling with her feelings for the sake of a passing desire;
and he could only hope that she might not live to suffer on his
She had begged him to come to her again; entreated him; wept. He had
promised that he would do so, and he meant to carry out that promise.
He could not desert her now. Awkward as such unintentional
connections were, the interspace of a hundred miles--which to a girl
of her limited capabilities was like a thousand--would effectually
hinder this summer fancy from greatly encumbering his life; while
thought of her simple love might do him the negative good of keeping
him from idle pleasures in town when he wished to work hard. His
circuit journeys would take him to Melchester three or four times a
year; and then he could always see her.
The pseudonym, or rather partial name, that he had given her as his
before knowing how far the acquaintance was going to carry him, had
been spoken on the spur of the moment, without any ulterior intention
whatever. He had not afterwards disturbed Anna's error, but on
leaving her he had felt bound to give her an address at a stationer's
not far from his chambers, at which she might write to him under the
initials 'C. B.'
In due time Raye returned to his London abode, having called at
Melchester on his way and spent a few additional hours with his
fascinating child of nature. In town he lived monotonously every
day. Often he and his rooms were enclosed by a tawny fog from all
the world besides, and when he lighted the gas to read or write by,
his situation seemed so unnatural that he would look into the fire
and think of that trusting girl at Melchester again and again.
Often, oppressed by absurd fondness for her, he would enter the dim
religious nave of the Law Courts by the north door, elbow other
juniors habited like himself, and like him unretained; edge himself
into this or that crowded court where a sensational case was going
on, just as if he were in it, though the police officers at the door
knew as well as he knew himself that he had no more concern with the
business in hand than the patient idlers at the gallery-door outside,
who had waited to enter since eight in the morning because, like him,
they belonged to the classes that live on expectation. But he would
do these things to no purpose, and think how greatly the characters
in such scenes contrasted with the pink and breezy Anna.
An unexpected feature in that peasant maiden's conduct was that she
had not as yet written to him, though he had told her she might do so
if she wished. Surely a young creature had never before been so
reticent in such circumstances. At length he sent her a brief line,
positively requesting her to write. There was no answer by the
return post, but the day after a letter in a neat feminine hand, and
bearing the Melchester post-mark, was handed to him by the stationer.
The fact alone of its arrival was sufficient to satisfy his
imaginative sentiment. He was not anxious to open the epistle, and
in truth did not begin to read it for nearly half-an-hour,
anticipating readily its terms of passionate retrospect and tender
adjuration. When at last he turned his feet to the fireplace and
unfolded the sheet, he was surprised and pleased to find that neither
extravagance nor vulgarity was there. It was the most charming
little missive he had ever received from woman. To be sure the
language was simple and the ideas were slight; but it was so self-
possessed; so purely that of a young girl who felt her womanhood to
be enough for her dignity that he read it through twice. Four sides
were filled, and a few lines written across, after the fashion of
former days; the paper, too, was common, and not of the latest shade
and surface. But what of those things? He had received letters from
women who were fairly called ladies, but never so sensible, so human
a letter as this. He could not single out any one sentence and say
it was at all remarkable or clever; the ensemble of the letter it was
which won him; and beyond the one request that he would write or come
to her again soon there was nothing to show her sense of a claim upon
To write again and develop a correspondence was the last thing Raye
would have preconceived as his conduct in such a situation; yet he
did send a short, encouraging line or two, signed with his pseudonym,
in which he asked for another letter, and cheeringly promised that he
would try to see her again on some near day, and would never forget
how much they had been to each other during their short acquaintance.
To return now to the moment at which Anna, at Melchester, had
received Raye's letter.
It had been put into her own hand by the postman on his morning
rounds. She flushed down to her neck on receipt of it, and turned it
over and over. 'It is mine?' she said.
'Why, yes, can't you see it is?' said the postman, smiling as he
guessed the nature of the document and the cause of the confusion.
'O yes, of course!' replied Anna, looking at the letter, forcedly
tittering, and blushing still more.
Her look of embarrassment did not leave her with the postman's
departure. She opened the envelope, kissed its contents, put away
the letter in her pocket, and remained musing till her eyes filled
A few minutes later she carried up a cup of tea to Mrs. Harnham in
her bed-chamber. Anna's mistress looked at her, and said: 'How
dismal you seem this morning, Anna. What's the matter?'
'I'm not dismal, I'm glad; only I--' She stopped to stifle a sob.
'I've got a letter--and what good is it to me, if I can't read a word
'Why, I'll read it, child, if necessary.'
'But this is from somebody--I don't want anybody to read it but
myself!' Anna murmured.
'I shall not tell anybody. Is it from that young man?'
'I think so.' Anna slowly produced the letter, saying: 'Then will
you read it to me, ma'am?'
This was the secret of Anna's embarrassment and flutterings. She
could neither read nor write. She had grown up under the care of an
aunt by marriage, at one of the lonely hamlets on the Great Mid-
Wessex Plain where, even in days of national education, there had
been no school within a distance of two miles. Her aunt was an
ignorant woman; there had been nobody to investigate Anna's
circumstances, nobody to care about her learning the rudiments;
though, as often in such cases, she had been well fed and clothed and
not unkindly treated. Since she had come to live at Melchester with
Mrs. Harnham, the latter, who took a kindly interest in the girl, had
taught her to speak correctly, in which accomplishment Anna showed
considerable readiness, as is not unusual with the illiterate; and
soon became quite fluent in the use of her mistress's phraseology.
Mrs. Harnham also insisted upon her getting a spelling and copy book,
and beginning to practise in these. Anna was slower in this branch
of her education, and meanwhile here was the letter.
Edith Harnham's large dark eyes expressed some interest in the
contents, though, in her character of mere interpreter, she threw
into her tone as much as she could of mechanical passiveness. She
read the short epistle on to its concluding sentence, which idly
requested Anna to send him a tender answer.
'Now--you'll do it for me, won't you, dear mistress?' said Anna
eagerly. 'And you'll do it as well as ever you can, please? Because
I couldn't bear him to think I am not able to do it myself. I should
sink into the earth with shame if he knew that!'
From some words in the letter Mrs. Harnham was led to ask questions,
and the answers she received confirmed her suspicions. Deep concern
filled Edith's heart at perceiving how the girl had committed her
happiness to the issue of this new-sprung attachment. She blamed
herself for not interfering in a flirtation which had resulted so
seriously for the poor little creature in her charge; though at the
time of seeing the pair together she had a feeling that it was hardly
within her province to nip young affection in the bud. However, what
was done could not be undone, and it behoved her now, as Anna's only
protector, to help her as much as she could. To Anna's eager request
that she, Mrs. Harnham, should compose and write the answer to this
young London man's letter, she felt bound to accede, to keep alive
his attachment to the girl if possible; though in other circumstances
she might have suggested the cook as an amanuensis.
A tender reply was thereupon concocted, and set down in Edith
Harnham's hand. This letter it had been which Raye had received and
delighted in. Written in the presence of Anna it certainly was, and
on Anna's humble note-paper, and in a measure indited by the young
girl; but the life, the spirit, the individuality, were Edith
'Won't you at least put your name yourself?' she said. 'You can
manage to write that by this time?'
'No, no,' said Anna, shrinking back. 'I should do it so bad. He'd
be ashamed of me, and never see me again!'
The note, so prettily requesting another from him, had, as we have
seen, power enough in its pages to bring one. He declared it to be
such a pleasure to hear from her that she must write every week. The
same process of manufacture was accordingly repeated by Anna and her
mistress, and continued for several weeks in succession; each letter
being penned and suggested by Edith, the girl standing by; the answer
read and commented on by Edith, Anna standing by and listening again.
Late on a winter evening, after the dispatch of the sixth letter,
Mrs. Harnham was sitting alone by the remains of her fire. Her
husband had retired to bed, and she had fallen into that fixity of
musing which takes no count of hour or temperature. The state of
mind had been brought about in Edith by a strange thing which she had
done that day. For the first time since Raye's visit Anna had gone
to stay over a night or two with her cottage friends on the Plain,
and in her absence had arrived, out of its time, a letter from Raye.
To this Edith had replied on her own responsibility, from the depths
of her own heart, without waiting for her maid's collaboration. The
luxury of writing to him what would be known to no consciousness but
his was great, and she had indulged herself therein.
Why was it a luxury?
Edith Harnham led a lonely life. Influenced by the belief of the
British parent that a bad marriage with its aversions is better than
free womanhood with its interests, dignity, and leisure, she had
consented to marry the elderly wine-merchant as a pis aller, at the
age of seven-and-twenty--some three years before this date--to find
afterwards that she had made a mistake. That contract had left her
still a woman whose deeper nature had never been stirred.
She was now clearly realizing that she had become possessed to the
bottom of her soul with the image of a man to whom she was hardly so
much as a name. From the first he had attracted her by his looks and
voice; by his tender touch; and, with these as generators, the
writing of letter after letter and the reading of their soft answers
had insensibly developed on her side an emotion which fanned his;
till there had resulted a magnetic reciprocity between the
correspondents, notwithstanding that one of them wrote in a character
not her own. That he had been able to seduce another woman in two
days was his crowning though unrecognized fascination for her as the
They were her own impassioned and pent-up ideas--lowered to
monosyllabic phraseology in order to keep up the disguise--that Edith
put into letters signed with another name, much to the shallow Anna's
delight, who, unassisted, could not for the world have conceived such
pretty fancies for winning him, even had she been able to write them.
Edith found that it was these, her own foisted-in sentiments, to
which the young barrister mainly responded. The few sentences
occasionally added from Anna's own lips made apparently no impression
The letter-writing in her absence Anna never discovered; but on her
return the next morning she declared she wished to see her lover
about something at once, and begged Mrs. Harnham to ask him to come.
There was a strange anxiety in her manner which did not escape Mrs.
Harnham, and ultimately resolved itself into a flood of tears.
Sinking down at Edith's knees, she made confession that the result of
her relations with her lover it would soon become necessary to
Edith Harnham was generous enough to be very far from inclined to
cast Anna adrift at this conjuncture. No true woman ever is so
inclined from her own personal point of view, however prompt she may
be in taking such steps to safeguard those dear to her. Although she
had written to Raye so short a time previously, she instantly penned
another Anna-note hinting clearly though delicately the state of
Raye replied by a hasty line to say how much he was affected by her
news: he felt that he must run down to see her almost immediately.
But a week later the girl came to her mistress's room with another
note, which on being read informed her that after all he could not
find time for the journey. Anna was broken with grief; but by Mrs.
Harnham's counsel strictly refrained from hurling at him the
reproaches and bitterness customary from young women so situated.
One thing was imperative: to keep the young man's romantic interest
in her alive. Rather therefore did Edith, in the name of her
protegee, request him on no account to be distressed about the
looming event, and not to inconvenience himself to hasten down. She
desired above everything to be no weight upon him in his career, no
clog upon his high activities. She had wished him to know what had
befallen: he was to dismiss it again from his mind. Only he must
write tenderly as ever, and when he should come again on the spring
circuit it would be soon enough to discuss what had better be done.
It may well be supposed that Anna's own feelings had not been quite
in accord with these generous expressions; but the mistress's
judgment had ruled, and Anna had acquiesced. 'All I want is that
NICENESS you can so well put into your letters, my dear, dear
mistress, and that I can't for the life o' me make up out of my own
head; though I mean the same thing and feel it exactly when you've
written it down!'
When the letter had been sent off, and Edith Harnham was left alone,
she bowed herself on the back of her chair and wept.
'I wish it was mine--I wish it was!' she murmured. 'Yet how can I
say such a wicked thing!'
The letter moved Raye considerably when it reached him. The
intelligence itself had affected him less than her unexpected manner
of treating him in relation to it. The absence of any word of
reproach, the devotion to his interests, the self-sacrifice apparent
in every line, all made up a nobility of character that he had never
dreamt of finding in womankind.
'God forgive me!' he said tremulously. 'I have been a wicked wretch.
I did not know she was such a treasure as this!'
He reassured her instantly; declaring that he would not of course
desert her, that he would provide a home for her somewhere.
Meanwhile she was to stay where she was as long as her mistress would
But a misfortune supervened in this direction. Whether an inkling of
Anna's circumstances reached the knowledge of Mrs. Harnham's husband
or not cannot be said, but the girl was compelled, in spite of
Edith's entreaties, to leave the house. By her own choice she
decided to go back for a while to the cottage on the Plain. This
arrangement led to a consultation as to how the correspondence should
be carried on; and in the girl's inability to continue personally
what had been begun in her name, and in the difficulty of their
acting in concert as heretofore, she requested Mrs. Harnham--the only
well-to-do friend she had in the world--to receive the letters and
reply to them off-hand, sending them on afterwards to herself on the
Plain, where she might at least get some neighbour to read them to
her, if a trustworthy one could be met with. Anna and her box then
departed for the Plain.
Thus it befel that Edith Harnham found herself in the strange
position of having to correspond, under no supervision by the real
woman, with a man not her husband, in terms which were virtually
those of a wife, concerning a condition that was not Edith's at all;
the man being one for whom, mainly through the sympathies involved in
playing this part, she secretly cherished a predilection, subtle and
imaginative truly, but strong and absorbing. She opened each letter,
read it as if intended for herself, and replied from the promptings
of her own heart and no other.
Throughout this correspondence, carried on in the girl's absence, the
high-strung Edith Harnham lived in the ecstasy of fancy; the
vicarious intimacy engendered such a flow of passionateness as was
never exceeded. For conscience' sake Edith at first sent on each of
his letters to Anna, and even rough copies of her replies; but later
on these so-called copies were much abridged, and many letters on
both sides were not sent on at all.
Though selfish, and, superficially at least, infested with the self-
indulgent vices of artificial society, there was a substratum of
honesty and fairness in Raye's character. He had really a tender
regard for the country girl, and it grew more tender than ever when
he found her apparently capable of expressing the deepest
sensibilities in the simplest words. He meditated, he wavered; and
finally resolved to consult his sister, a maiden lady much older than
himself, of lively sympathies and good intent. In making this
confidence he showed her some of the letters.
'She seems fairly educated,' Miss Raye observed. 'And bright in
ideas. She expresses herself with a taste that must be innate.'
'Yes. She writes very prettily, doesn't she, thanks to these
'One is drawn out towards her, in spite of one's self, poor thing.'
The upshot of the discussion was that though he had not been directly
advised to do it, Raye wrote, in his real name, what he would never
have decided to write on his own responsibility; namely that he could
not live without her, and would come down in the spring and shelve
her looming difficulty by marrying her.
This bold acceptance of the situation was made known to Anna by Mrs.
Harnham driving out immediately to the cottage on the Plain. Anna
jumped for joy like a little child. And poor, crude directions for
answering appropriately were given to Edith Harnham, who on her
return to the city carried them out with warm intensification.
'O!' she groaned, as she threw down the pen. 'Anna--poor good little
fool--hasn't intelligence enough to appreciate him! How should she?
While I--don't bear his child!'
It was now February. The correspondence had continued altogether for
four months; and the next letter from Raye contained incidentally a
statement of his position and prospects. He said that in offering to
wed her he had, at first, contemplated the step of retiring from a
profession which hitherto had brought him very slight emolument, and
which, to speak plainly, he had thought might be difficult of
practice after his union with her. But the unexpected mines of
brightness and warmth that her letters had disclosed to be lurking in
her sweet nature had led him to abandon that somewhat sad prospect.
He felt sure that, with her powers of development, after a little
private training in the social forms of London under his supervision,
and a little help from a governess if necessary, she would make as
good a professional man's wife as could be desired, even if he should
rise to the woolsack. Many a Lord Chancellor's wife had been less
intuitively a lady than she had shown herself to be in her lines to
'O--poor fellow, poor fellow!' mourned Edith Harnham.
Her distress now raged as high as her infatuation. It was she who
had wrought him to this pitch--to a marriage which meant his ruin;
yet she could not, in mercy to her maid, do anything to hinder his
plan. Anna was coming to Melchester that week, but she could hardly
show the girl this last reply from the young man; it told too much of
the second individuality that had usurped the place of the first.
Anna came, and her mistress took her into her own room for privacy.
Anna began by saying with some anxiety that she was glad the wedding
was so near.
'O Anna!' replied Mrs. Harnham. 'I think we must tell him all--that
I have been doing your writing for you?--lest he should not know it
till after you become his wife, and it might lead to dissension and
'O mis'ess, dear mis'ess--please don't tell him now!' cried Anna in
distress. 'If you were to do it, perhaps he would not marry me; and
what should I do then? It would be terrible what would come to me!
And I am getting on with my writing, too. I have brought with me the
copybook you were so good as to give me, and I practise every day,
and though it is so, so hard, I shall do it well at last, I believe,
if I keep on trying.'
Edith looked at the copybook. The copies had been set by herself,
and such progress as the girl had made was in the way of grotesque
facsimile of her mistress's hand. But even if Edith's flowing
caligraphy were reproduced the inspiration would be another thing.
'You do it so beautifully,' continued Anna, 'and say all that I want
to say so much better than I could say it, that I do hope you won't
leave me in the lurch just now!'
'Very well,' replied the other. 'But I--but I thought I ought not to
Her strong desire to confide her sentiments led Edith to answer
'Because of its effect upon me.'
'But it CAN'T have any!'
'Because you are married already!' said Anna with lucid simplicity.
'Of course it can't,' said her mistress hastily; yet glad, despite
her conscience, that two or three outpourings still remained to her.
'But you must concentrate your attention on writing your name as I
write it here.'
Soon Raye wrote about the wedding. Having decided to make the best
of what he feared was a piece of romantic folly, he had acquired more
zest for the grand experiment. He wished the ceremony to be in
London, for greater privacy. Edith Harnham would have preferred it
at Melchester; Anna was passive. His reasoning prevailed, and Mrs.
Harnham threw herself with mournful zeal into the preparations for
Anna's departure. In a last desperate feeling that she must at every
hazard be in at the death of her dream, and see once again the man
who by a species of telepathy had exercised such an influence on her,
she offered to go up with Anna and be with her through the ceremony--
'to see the end of her,' as her mistress put it with forced gaiety;
an offer which the girl gratefully accepted; for she had no other
friend capable of playing the part of companion and witness, in the
presence of a gentlemanly bridegroom, in such a way as not to hasten
an opinion that he had made an irremediable social blunder.
It was a muddy morning in March when Raye alighted from a four-wheel
cab at the door of a registry-office in the S.W. district of London,
and carefully handed down Anna and her companion Mrs. Harnham. Anna
looked attractive in the somewhat fashionable clothes which Mrs.
Harnham had helped her to buy, though not quite so attractive as, an
innocent child, she had appeared in her country gown on the back of
the wooden horse at Melchester Fair.
Mrs. Harnham had come up this morning by an early train, and a young
man--a friend of Raye's--having met them at the door, all four
entered the registry-office together. Till an hour before this time
Raye had never known the wine-merchant's wife, except at that first
casual encounter, and in the flutter of the performance before them
he had little opportunity for more than a brief acquaintance. The
contract of marriage at a registry is soon got through; but somehow,
during its progress, Raye discovered a strange and secret gravitation
between himself and Anna's friend.
The formalities of the wedding--or rather ratification of a previous
union--being concluded, the four went in one cab to Raye's lodgings,
newly taken in a new suburb in preference to a house, the rent of
which he could ill afford just then. Here Anna cut the little cake
which Raye had bought at a pastrycook's on his way home from
Lincoln's Inn the night before. But she did not do much besides.
Raye's friend was obliged to depart almost immediately, and when he
had left the only ones virtually present were Edith and Raye who
exchanged ideas with much animation. The conversation was indeed
theirs only, Anna being as a domestic animal who humbly heard but
understood not. Raye seemed startled in awakening to this fact, and
began to feel dissatisfied with her inadequacy.
At last, more disappointed than he cared to own, he said, 'Mrs.
Harnham, my darling is so flurried that she doesn't know what she is
doing or saying. I see that after this event a little quietude will
be necessary before she gives tongue to that tender philosophy which
she used to treat me to in her letters.'
They had planned to start early that afternoon for Knollsea, to spend
the few opening days of their married life there, and as the hour for
departure was drawing near Raye asked his wife if she would go to the
writing-desk in the next room and scribble a little note to his
sister, who had been unable to attend through indisposition,
informing her that the ceremony was over, thanking her for her little
present, and hoping to know her well now that she was the writer's
sister as well as Charles's.
'Say it in the pretty poetical way you know so well how to adopt,' he
added, 'for I want you particularly to win her, and both of you to be
Anna looked uneasy, but departed to her task, Raye remaining to talk
to their guest. Anna was a long while absent, and her husband
suddenly rose and went to her.
He found her still bending over the writing-table, with tears
brimming up in her eyes; and he looked down upon the sheet of note-
paper with some interest, to discover with what tact she had
expressed her good-will in the delicate circumstances. To his
surprise she had progressed but a few lines, in the characters and
spelling of a child of eight, and with the ideas of a goose.
'Anna,' he said, staring; 'what's this?'
'It only means--that I can't do it any better!' she answered, through
'I can't!' she insisted, with miserable, sobbing hardihood. 'I--I--
didn't write those letters, Charles! I only told HER what to write!
And not always that! But I am learning, O so fast, my dear, dear
husband! And you'll forgive me, won't you, for not telling you
before?' She slid to her knees, abjectly clasped his waist and laid
her face against him.
He stood a few moments, raised her, abruptly turned, and shut the
door upon her, rejoining Edith in the drawing-room. She saw that
something untoward had been discovered, and their eyes remained fixed
on each other.
'Do I guess rightly?' he asked, with wan quietude. 'YOU were her
scribe through all this?'
'It was necessary,' said Edith.
'Did she dictate every word you ever wrote to me?'
'Not every word.'
'In fact, very little?'
'You wrote a great part of those pages every week from your own
conceptions, though in her name!'
'Perhaps you wrote many of the letters when you were alone, without
communication with her?'
He turned to the bookcase, and leant with his hand over his face; and
Edith, seeing his distress, became white as a sheet.
'You have deceived me--ruined me!' he murmured.
'O, don't say it!' she cried in her anguish, jumping up and putting
her hand on his shoulder. 'I can't bear that!'
'Delighting me deceptively! Why did you do it--WHY did you!'
'I began doing it in kindness to her! How could I do otherwise than
try to save such a simple girl from misery? But I admit that I
continued it for pleasure to myself.'
Raye looked up. 'Why did it give you pleasure?' he asked.
'I must not tell,' said she.
He continued to regard her, and saw that her lips suddenly began to
quiver under his scrutiny, and her eyes to fill and droop. She
started aside, and said that she must go to the station to catch the
return train: could a cab be called immediately?
But Raye went up to her, and took her unresisting hand. 'Well, to
think of such a thing as this!' he said. 'Why, you and I are
friends--lovers--devoted lovers--by correspondence!'
'Yes; I suppose.'
'Plainly more. It is no use blinking that. Legally I have married
her--God help us both!--in soul and spirit I have married you, and no
other woman in the world!'
'But I will not hush! Why should you try to disguise the full truth,
when you have already owned half of it? Yes, it is between you and
me that the bond is--not between me and her! Now I'll say no more.
But, O my cruel one, I think I have one claim upon you!'
She did not say what, and he drew her towards him, and bent over her.
'If it was all pure invention in those letters,' he said
emphatically, 'give me your cheek only. If you meant what you said,
let it be lips. It is for the first and last time, remember!'
She put up her mouth, and he kissed her long. 'You forgive me?' she
'But you are ruined!'
'What matter!' he said shrugging his shoulders. 'It serves me
She withdrew, wiped her eyes, entered and bade good-bye to Anna, who
had not expected her to go so soon, and was still wrestling with the
letter. Raye followed Edith downstairs, and in three minutes she was
in a hansom driving to the Waterloo station.
He went back to his wife. 'Never mind the letter, Anna, to-day,' he
said gently. 'Put on your things. We, too, must be off shortly.'
The simple girl, upheld by the sense that she was indeed married,
showed her delight at finding that he was as kind as ever after the
disclosure. She did not know that before his eyes he beheld as it
were a galley, in which he, the fastidious urban, was chained to work
for the remainder of his life, with her, the unlettered peasant,
chained to his side.
Edith travelled back to Melchester that day with a face that showed
the very stupor of grief; her lips still tingling from the desperate
pressure of his kiss. The end of her impassioned dream had come.
When at dusk she reached the Melchester station her husband was there
to meet her, but in his perfunctoriness and her preoccupation they
did not see each other, and she went out of the station alone.
She walked mechanically homewards without calling a fly. Entering,
she could not bear the silence of the house, and went up in the dark
to where Anna had slept, where she remained thinking awhile. She
then returned to the drawing-room, and not knowing what she did,
crouched down upon the floor.
'I have ruined him!' she kept repeating. 'I have ruined him; because
I would not deal treacherously towards her!'
In the course of half an hour a figure opened the door of the
'Ah--who's that?' she said, starting up, for it was dark.
'Your husband--who should it be?' said the worthy merchant.
'Ah--my husband!--I forgot I had a husband!' she whispered to
'I missed you at the station,' he continued. 'Did you see Anna
safely tied up? I hope so, for 'twas time.'
'Yes--Anna is married.'
Simultaneously with Edith's journey home Anna and her husband were
sitting at the opposite windows of a second-class carriage which sped
along to Knollsea. In his hand was a pocket-book full of creased
sheets closely written over. Unfolding them one after another he
read them in silence, and sighed.
'What are you doing, dear Charles?' she said timidly from the other
window, and drew nearer to him as if he were a god.
'Reading over all those sweet letters to me signed "Anna,"' he
replied with dreary resignation.