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Kaleidoscopic dreams of a weird alchemist-surgeon, Grammer Oliver's skeleton, and the face of Giles Winterborne, brought Grace Melbury to the morning of the next day. It was fine. A north wind was blowing - that not unacceptable compromise between the atmospheric cutlery of the eastern blast and the spongy gales of the west quarter. She looked from her window in the direction of the light of the previous evening, and could just discern through the trees the shape of the surgeon's house. Somehow, in the broad, practical daylight, that unknown and lonely gentleman seemed to be shorn of much of the interest which had invested his personality and pursuits in the hours of darkness, and as Grace's dressing proceeded he faded from her mind.
Meanwhile, Winterborne, though half assured of her father's favor, was rendered a little restless by Miss Melbury's behavior. Despite his dry self-control, he could not help looking continually from his own door towards the timber-merchant's, in the probability of somebody's emergence therefrom. His attention was at length justified by the appearance of two figures, that of Mr. Melbury himself, and Grace beside him. They stepped out in a direction towards the densest quarter of the wood, and Winterborne walked contemplatively behind them, till all three were soon under the trees.
Although the time of bare boughs had now set in, there were sheltered hollows amid the Hintock plantations and copses in which a more tardy leave-taking than on windy summits was the rule with the foliage. This caused here and there an apparent mixture of the seasons; so that in some of the dells that they passed by holly-berries in full red were found growing beside oak and hazel whose leaves were as yet not far removed from green, and brambles whose verdure was rich and deep as in the month of August. To Grace these well-known peculiarities were as an old painting restored.
Now could be beheld that change from the handsome to the curious which the features of a wood undergo at the ingress of the winter months. Angles were taking the place of curves, and reticulations of surfaces - a change constituting a sudden lapse from the ornate to the primitive on Nature's canvas, and comparable to a retrogressive step from the art of an advanced school of painting to that of the Pacific Islander.
Winterborne followed, and kept his eye upon the two figures as they threaded their way through these sylvan phenomena. Mr. Melbury's long legs, and gaiters drawn in to the bone at the ankles, his slight stoop, his habit of getting lost in thought and arousing himself with an exclamation of "Hah!" accompanied with an upward jerk of the head, composed a personage recognizable by his neighbors as far as he could be seen. It seemed as if the squirrels and birds knew him. One of the former would occasionally run from the path to hide behind the arm of some tree, which the little animal carefully edged round pari passu with Melbury and his daughters movement onward, assuming a mock manner, as though he were saying, "Ho, ho; you are only a timbermerchant, and carry no gun!"
They went noiselessly over mats of starry moss, rustled through interspersed tracts of leaves, skirted trunks with spreading roots, whose mossed rinds made them like hands wearing green gloves; elbowed old elms and ashes with great forks, in which stood pools of water that overflowed on rainy days, and ran down their stems in green cascades. On older trees still than these, huge lobes of fungi grew like lungs. Here, as everywhere, the Unfulfilled Intention, which makes life what it is, was as obvious as it could be among the depraved crowds of a city slum. The leaf was deformed, the curve was crippled, the taper was interrupted; the lichen eat the vigor of the stalk, and the ivy slowly strangled to death the promising sapling.
They dived amid beeches under which nothing grew, the younger boughs still retaining their hectic leaves, that rustled in the breeze with a sound almost metallic, like the sheet-iron foliage of the fabled Jarnvid wood. Some flecks of white in Grace's drapery had enabled Giles to keep her and her father in view till this time; but now he lost sight of them, and was obliged to follow by ear - no difficult matter, for on the line of their course every wood-pigeon rose from its perch with a continued clash, dashing its wings against the branches with wellnigh force enough to break every quill. By taking the track of this noise he soon came to a stile.
Was it worth while to go farther? He examined the doughy soil at the foot of the stile, and saw among the large sole-and-heel tracks an impression of a slighter kind from a boot that was obviously not local, for Winterborne knew all the cobblers' patterns in that district, because they were very few to know. The mud-picture was enough to make him swing himself over and proceed.
The character of the woodland now changed. The bases of the smaller trees were nibbled bare by rabbits, and at divers points heaps of fresh-made chips, and the newly-cut stool of a tree, stared white through the undergrowth. There had been a large fall of timber this year, which explained the meaning of some sounds that soon reached him.
A voice was shouting intermittently in a sort of human bark, which reminded Giles that there was a sale of trees and fagots that very day. Melbury would naturally be present. Thereupon Winterborne remembered that he himself wanted a few fagots, and entered upon the scene.
A large group of buyers stood round the auctioneer, or followed him when, between his pauses, he wandered on from one lot of plantation produce to another, like some philosopher of the Peripatetic school delivering his lectures in the shady groves of the Lyceum. His companions were timber-dealers, yeomen, farmers, villagers, and others; mostly woodland men, who on that account could afford to be curious in their walking-sticks, which consequently exhibited various monstrosities of vegetation, the chief being cork-screw shapes in black and white thorn, brought to that pattern by the slow torture of an encircling woodbine during their growth, as the Chinese have been said to mould human beings into grotesque toys by continued compression in infancy. Two women, wearing men's jackets on their gowns, conducted in the rear of the halting procession a pony-cart containing a tapped barrel of beer, from which they drew and replenished horns that were handed round, with bread-and-cheese from a basket.
The auctioneer adjusted himself to circumstances by using his walking-stick as a hammer, and knocked down the lot on any convenient object that took his fancy, such as the crown of a little boy's head, or the shoulders of a by-stander who had no business there except to taste the brew; a proceeding which would have been deemed humorous but for the air of stern rigidity which that auctioneer's face preserved, tending to show that the eccentricity was a result of that absence of mind which is engendered by the press of affairs, and no freak of fancy at all.
Mr. Melbury stood slightly apart from the rest of the Peripatetics, and Grace beside him, clinging closely to his arm, her modern attire looking almost odd where everything else was old-fashioned, and throwing over the familiar garniture of the trees a homeliness that seemed to demand improvement by the addition of a few contemporary novelties also. Grace seemed to regard the selling with the interest which attaches to memories revived after an interval of obliviousness.
Winterborne went and stood close to them; the timber-merchant spoke, and continued his buying; Grace merely smiled. To justify his presence there Winterborne began bidding for timber and fagots that he did not want, pursuing the occupation in an abstracted mood, in which the auctioneer's voice seemed to become one of the natural sounds of the woodland. A few flakes of snow descended, at the sight of which a robin, alarmed at these signs of imminent winter, and seeing that no offence was meant by the human invasion, came and perched on the tip of the fagots that were being sold, and looked into the auctioneer's face, while waiting for some chance crumb from the bread-basket. Standing a little behind Grace, Winterborne observed how one flake would sail downward and settle on a curl of her hair, and how another would choose her shoulder, and another the edge of her bonnet, which took up so much of his attention that his biddings proceeded incoherently; and when the auctioneer said, every now and then, with a nod towards him, "Yours, Mr. Winterborne," he had no idea whether he had bought fagots, poles, or logwood.
He regretted, with some causticity of humor, that her father should show such inequalities of temperament as to keep Grace tightly on his arm to-day, when he had quite lately seemed anxious to recognize their betrothal as a fact. And thus musing, and joining in no conversation with other buyers except when directly addressed, he followed the assemblage hither and thither till the end of the auction, when Giles for the first time realized what his purchases had been. Hundreds of fagots, and divers lots of timber, had been set down to him, when all he had required had been a few bundles of spray for his odd man Robert Creedle's use in baking and lighting fires.
Business being over, he turned to speak to the timber merchant. But Melbury's manner was short and distant; and Grace, too, looked vexed and reproachful. Winterborne then discovered that he had been unwittingly bidding against her father, and picking up his favorite lots in spite of him. With a very few words they left the spot and pursued their way homeward.
Giles was extremely sorry at what he had done, and remained standing under the trees, all the other men having strayed silently away. He saw Melbury and his daughter pass down a glade without looking back. While they moved slowly through it a lady appeared on horseback in the middle distance, the line of her progress converging upon that of Melbury's. They met, Melbury took off his hat, and she reined in her horse. A conversation was evidently in progress between Grace and her father and this equestrian, in whom he was almost sure that he recognized Mrs. Charmond, less by her outline than by the livery of the groom who had halted some yards off.
The interlocutors did not part till after a prolonged pause, during which much seemed to be said. When Melbury and Grace resumed their walk it was with something of a lighter tread than before.
Winterborne then pursued his own course homeward. He was unwilling to let coldness grow up between himself and the Melburys for any trivial reason, and in the evening he went to their house. On drawing near the gate his attention was attracted by the sight of one of the bedrooms blinking into a state of illumination. In it stood Grace lighting several candles, her right hand elevating the taper, her left hand on her bosom, her face thoughtfully fixed on each wick as it kindled, as if she saw in every flame's growth the rise of a life to maturity. He wondered what such unusual brilliancy could mean to-night. On getting in-doors he found her father and step-mother in a state of suppressed excitement, which at first he could not comprehend.
"I am sorry about my biddings to-day," said Giles. "I don't know what I was doing. I have come to say that any of the lots you may require are yours."
"Oh, never mind - never mind," replied the timber-merchant, with a slight wave of his hand, "I have so much else to think of that I nearly had forgot it. Just now, too, there are matters of a different kind from trade to attend to, so don't let it concern ye."
As the timber-merchant spoke, as it were, down to him from a higher moral plane than his own, Giles turned to Mrs. Melbury.
"Grace is going to the House to-morrow," she said, quietly. "She is looking out her things now. I dare say she is wanting me this minute to assist her." Thereupon Mrs. Melbury left the room.
Nothing is more remarkable than the independent personality of the tongue now and then. Mr. Melbury knew that his words had been a sort of boast. He decried boasting, particularly to Giles; yet whenever the subject was Grace, his judgment resigned the ministry of speech in spite of him.
Winterborne felt surprise, pleasure, and also a little apprehension at the news. He repeated Mrs. Melbury's words.
"Yes," said paternal pride, not sorry to have dragged out of him what he could not in any circumstances have kept in. "Coming home from the woods this afternoon we met Mrs. Charmond out for a ride. She spoke to me on a little matter of business, and then got acquainted with Grace. 'Twas wonderful how she took to Grace in a few minutes; that freemasonry of education made 'em close at once. Naturally enough she was amazed that such an article - ha, ha!-could come out of my house. At last it led on to Mis'ess Grace being asked to the House. So she's busy hunting up her frills and furbelows to go in." As Giles remained in thought without responding, Melbury continued: "But I'll call her down-stairs."
"No, no; don't do that, since she's busy," said Winterborne.
Melbury, feeling from the young man's manner that his own talk had been too much at Giles and too little to him, repented at once. His face changed, and he said, in lower tones, with an effort, "She's yours, Giles, as far as I am concerned."
"Thanks - my best thanks....But I think, since it is all right between us about the biddings, that I'll not interrupt her now. I'll step homeward, and call another time."
On leaving the house he looked up at the bedroom again. Grace, surrounded by a sufficient number of candles to answer all purposes of self-criticism, was standing before a cheval-glass that her father had lately bought expressly for her use; she was bonneted, cloaked, and gloved, and glanced over her shoulder into the mirror, estimating her aspect. Her face was lit with the natural elation of a young girl hoping to inaugurate on the morrow an intimate acquaintance with a new, interesting, and powerful friend.
Turn to the next chapter: CHAPTER VIII.