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Dip into a classic work of fiction that many critics regard as one of the novels that helped to usher in the modern era of literature. When it was originally published, Thomas Hardy's The Return of the Native rocked Victorian England with its frank discussion of titillating subjects such as out-of-wedlock relationships. Today, the novel offers readers a fascinating glimpse into the mores and moral constraints of a bygone era.
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The Return of the Native
The date at which the following events are assumed to have occurred may be set down as between 1840 and 1850, when the old watering place herein called “Budmouth” still retained sufficient afterglow from its Georgian gaiety and prestige to lend it an absorbing attractiveness to the romantic and imaginative soul of a lonely dweller inland.
Under the general name of “Egdon Heath,” which has been given to the sombre scene of the story, are united or typified heaths of various real names, to the number of at least a dozen; these being virtually one in character and aspect, though their original unity, or partial unity, is now somewhat disguised by intrusive strips and slices brought under the plough with varying degrees of success, or planted to woodland.
It is pleasant to dream that some spot in the extensive tract whose southwestern quarter is here described, may be the heath of that traditionary King of Wessex—Lear.
I bade good morrow,
And thought to leave her far away behind;
But cheerly, cheerly,
She loves me dearly;
She is so constant to me, and so kind.
I would deceive her,
And so leave her,
But ah! she is so constant and so kind.”
BOOK ONE — THE THREE WOMEN
1—A Face on Which Time Makes but Little Impression
A Saturday afternoon in November was approaching the time of twilight, and the vast tract of unenclosed wild known as Egdon Heath embrowned itself moment by moment. Overhead the hollow stretch of whitish cloud shutting out the sky was as a tent which had the whole heath for its floor.
The heaven being spread with this pallid screen and the earth with the darkest vegetation, their meeting-line at the horizon was clearly marked. In such contrast the heath wore the appearance of an instalment of night which had taken up its place before its astronomical hour was come: darkness had to a great extent arrived hereon, while day stood distinct in the sky. Looking upwards, a furze-cutter would have been inclined to continue work; looking down, he would have decided to finish his faggot and go home. The distant rims of the world and of the firmament seemed to be a division in time no less than a division in matter. The face of the heath by its mere complexion added half an hour to evening; it could in like manner retard the dawn, sadden noon, anticipate the frowning of storms scarcely generated, and intensify the opacity of a moonless midnight to a cause of shaking and dread.
In fact, precisely at this transitional point of its nightly roll into darkness the great and particular glory of the Egdon waste began, and nobody could be said to understand the heath who had not been there at such a time. It could best be felt when it could not clearly be seen, its complete effect and explanation lying in this and the succeeding hours before the next dawn; then, and only then, did it tell its true tale. The spot was, indeed, a near relation of night, and when night showed itself an apparent tendency to gravitate together could be perceived in its shades and the scene. The sombre stretch of rounds and hollows seemed to rise and meet the evening gloom in pure sympathy, the heath exhaling darkness as rapidly as the heavens precipitated it. And so the obscurity in the air and the obscurity in the land closed together in a black fraternization towards which each advanced halfway.
The place became full of a watchful intentness now; for when other things sank blooding to sleep the heath appeared slowly to awake and listen. Every night its Titanic form seemed to await something; but it had waited thus, unmoved, during so many centuries, through the crises of so many things, that it could only be imagined to await one last crisis—the final overthrow.
It was a spot which returned upon the memory of those who loved it with an aspect of peculiar and kindly congruity. Smiling champaigns of flowers and fruit hardly do this, for they are permanently harmonious only with an existence of better reputation as to its issues than the present. Twilight combined with the scenery of Egdon Heath to evolve a thing majestic without severity, impressive without showiness, emphatic in its admonitions, grand in its simplicity. The qualifications which frequently invest the facade of a prison with far more dignity than is found in the facade of a palace double its size lent to this heath a sublimity in which spots renowned for beauty of the accepted kind are utterly wanting. Fair prospects wed happily with fair times; but alas, if times be not fair! Men have oftener suffered from, the mockery of a place too smiling for their reason than from the oppression of surroundings oversadly tinged. Haggard Egdon appealed to a subtler and scarcer instinct, to a more recently learnt emotion, than that which responds to the sort of beauty called charming and fair.
Indeed, it is a question if the exclusive reign of this orthodox beauty is not approaching its last quarter. The new Vale of Tempe may be a gaunt waste in Thule; human souls may find themselves in closer and closer harmony with external things wearing a sombreness distasteful to our race when it was young. The time seems near, if it has not actually arrived, when the chastened sublimity of a moor, a sea, or a mountain will be all of nature that is absolutely in keeping with the moods of the more thinking among mankind. And ultimately, to the commonest tourist, spots like Iceland may become what the vineyards and myrtle gardens of South Europe are to him now; and Heidelberg and Baden be passed unheeded as he hastens from the Alps to the sand dunes of Scheveningen.
The most thoroughgoing ascetic could feel that he had a natural right to wander on Egdon—he was keeping within the line of legitimate indulgence when he laid himself open to influences such as these. Colours and beauties so far subdued were, at least, the birthright of all. Only in summer days of highest feather did its mood touch the level of gaiety. Intensity was more usually reached by way of the solemn than by way of the brilliant, and such a sort of intensity was often arrived at during winter darkness, tempests, and mists. Then Egdon was aroused to reciprocity; for the storm was its lover, and the wind its friend. Then it became the home of strange phantoms; and it was found to be the hitherto unrecognized original of those wild regions of obscurity which are vaguely felt to be compassing us about in midnight dreams of flight and disaster, and are never thought of after the dream till revived by scenes like this.
It was at present a place perfectly accordant with man’s nature—neither ghastly, hateful, nor ugly; neither commonplace, unmeaning, nor tame; but, like man, slighted and enduring; and withal singularly colossal and mysterious in its swarthy monotony. As with some persons who have long lived apart, solitude seemed to look out of its countenance. It had a lonely face, suggesting tragical possibilities.
This obscure, obsolete, superseded country figures in Domesday. Its condition is recorded therein as that of heathy, furzy, briary wilderness—“Bruaria.” Then follows the length and breadth in leagues; and, though some uncertainty exists as to the exact extent of this ancient lineal measure, it appears from the figures that the area of Egdon down to the present day has but little diminished. “Turbaria Bruaria”—the right of cutting heath-turf—occurs in charters relating to the district. “Overgrown with heth and mosse,” says Leland of the same dark sweep of country.
Here at least were intelligible facts regarding landscape—far-reaching proofs productive of genuine satisfaction. The untameable, Ishmaelitish thing that Egdon now was it always had been. Civilization was its enemy; and ever since the beginning of vegetation its soil had worn the same antique brown dress, the natural and invariable garment of the particular formation. In its venerable one coat lay a certain vein of satire on human vanity in clothes. A person on a heath in raiment of modern cut and colours has more or less an anomalous look. We seem to want the oldest and simplest human clothing where the clothing of the earth is so primitive.
To recline on a stump of thorn in the central valley of Egdon, between afternoon and night, as now, where the eye could reach nothing of the world outside the summits and shoulders of heathland which filled the whole circumference of its glance, and to know that everything around and underneath had been from prehistoric times as unaltered as the stars overhead, gave ballast to the mind adrift on change, and harassed by the irrepressible New. The great inviolate place had an ancient permanence which the sea cannot claim. Who can say of a particular sea that it is old? Distilled by the sun, kneaded by the moon, it is renewed in a year, in a day, or in an hour. The sea changed, the fields changed, the rivers, the villages, and the people changed, yet Egdon remained. Those surfaces were neither so steep as to be destructible by weather, nor so flat as to be the victims of floods and deposits. With the exception of an aged highway, and a still more aged barrow presently to be referred to—themselves almost crystallized to natural products by long continuance—even the trifling irregularities were not caused by pickaxe, plough, or spade, but remained as the very finger-touches of the last geological change.
The above-mentioned highway traversed the lower levels of the heath, from one horizon to another. In many portions of its course it overlaid an old vicinal way, which branched from the great Western road of the Romans, the Via Iceniana, or Ikenild Street, hard by. On the evening under consideration it would have been noticed that, though the gloom had increased sufficiently to confuse the minor features of the heath, the white surface of the road remained almost as clear as ever.
2—Humanity Appears upon the Scene, Hand in Hand with Trouble
Along the road walked an old man. He was white-headed as a mountain, bowed in the shoulders, and faded in general aspect. He wore a glazed hat, an ancient boat-cloak, and shoes; his brass buttons bearing an anchor upon their face. In his hand was a silver-headed walking stick, which he used as a veritable third leg, perseveringly dotting the ground with its point at every few inches’ interval. One would have said that he had been, in his day, a naval officer of some sort or other.
Before him stretched the long, laborious road, dry, empty, and white. It was quite open to the heath on each side, and bisected that vast dark surface like the parting-line on a head of black hair, diminishing and bending away on the furthest horizon.
The old man frequently stretched his eyes ahead to gaze over the tract that he had yet to traverse. At length he discerned, a long distance in front of him, a moving spot, which appeared to be a vehicle, and it proved to be going the same way as that in which he himself was journeying. It was the single atom of life that the scene contained, and it only served to render the general loneliness more evident. Its rate of advance was slow, and the old man gained upon it sensibly.
When he drew nearer he perceived it to be a spring van, ordinary in shape, but singular in colour, this being a lurid red. The driver walked beside it; and, like his van, he was completely red. One dye of that tincture covered his clothes, the cap upon his head, his boots, his face, and his hands. He was not temporarily overlaid with the colour; it permeated him.
The old man knew the meaning of this. The traveller with the cart was a reddleman—a person whose vocation it was to supply farmers with redding for their sheep. He was one of a class rapidly becoming extinct in Wessex, filling at present in the rural world the place which, during the last century, the dodo occupied in the world of animals. He is a curious, interesting, and nearly perished link between obsolete forms of life and those which generally prevail.
The decayed officer, by degrees, came up alongside his fellow-wayfarer, and wished him good evening. The reddleman turned his head, and replied in sad and occupied tones. He was young, and his face, if not exactly handsome, approached so near to handsome that nobody would have contradicted an assertion that it really was so in its natural colour. His eye, which glared so strangely through his stain, was in itself attractive—keen as that of a bird of prey, and blue as autumn mist. He had neither whisker nor moustache, which allowed the soft curves of the lower part of his face to be apparent. His lips were thin, and though, as it seemed, compressed by thought, there was a pleasant twitch at their corners now and then. He was clothed throughout in a tight-fitting suit of corduroy, excellent in quality, not much worn, and well-chosen for its purpose, but deprived of its original colour by his trade. It showed to advantage the good shape of his figure. A certain well-to-do air about the man suggested that he was not poor for his degree. The natural query of an observer would have been, Why should such a promising being as this have hidden his prepossessing exterior by adopting that singular occupation?
After replying to the old man’s greeting he showed no inclination to continue in talk, although they still walked side by side, for the elder traveller seemed to desire company. There were no sounds but that of the booming wind upon the stretch of tawny herbage around them, the crackling wheels, the tread of the men, and the footsteps of the two shaggy ponies which drew the van. They were small, hardy animals, of a breed between Galloway and Exmoor, and were known as “heath-croppers” here.
Now, as they thus pursued their way, the reddleman occasionally left his companion’s side, and, stepping behind the van, looked into its interior through a small window. The look was always anxious. He would then return to the old man, who made another remark about the state of the country and so on, to which the reddleman again abstractedly replied, and then again they would lapse into silence. The silence conveyed to neither any sense of awkwardness; in these lonely places wayfarers, after a first greeting, frequently plod on for miles without speech; contiguity amounts to a tacit conversation where, otherwise than in cities, such contiguity can be put an end to on the merest inclination, and where not to put an end to it is intercourse in itself.
Possibly these two might not have spoken again till their parting, had it not been for the reddleman’s visits to his van. When he returned from his fifth time of looking in the old man said, “You have something inside there besides your load?”
“Somebody who wants looking after?”
Not long after this a faint cry sounded from the interior. The reddleman hastened to the back, looked in, and came away again.
“You have a child there, my man?”
“No, sir, I have a woman.”
“The deuce you have! Why did she cry out?”
“Oh, she has fallen asleep, and not being used to traveling, she’s uneasy, and keeps dreaming.”
“A young woman?”
“Yes, a young woman.”
“That would have interested me forty years ago. Perhaps she’s your wife?”
“My wife!” said the other bitterly. “She’s above mating with such as I. But there’s no reason why I should tell you about that.”
“That’s true. And there’s no reason why you should not. What harm can I do to you or to her?”
The reddleman looked in the old man’s face. “Well, sir,” he said at last, “I knew her before today, though perhaps it would have been better if I had not. But she’s nothing to me, and I am nothing to her; and she wouldn’t have been in my van if any better carriage had been there to take her.”
“Where, may I ask?”
“I know the town well. What was she doing there?”
“Oh, not much—to gossip about. However, she’s tired to death now, and not at all well, and that’s what makes her so restless. She dropped off into a nap about an hour ago, and ‘twill do her good.”
“A nice-looking girl, no doubt?”
“You would say so.”
The other traveller turned his eyes with interest towards the van window, and, without withdrawing them, said, “I presume I might look in upon her?”
“No,” said the reddleman abruptly. “It is getting too dark for you to see much of her; and, more than that, I have no right to allow you. Thank God she sleeps so well, I hope she won’t wake till she’s home.”
“Who is she? One of the neighbourhood?”
“‘Tis no matter who, excuse me.”
“It is not that girl of Blooms-End, who has been talked about more or less lately? If so, I know her; and I can guess what has happened.”
“‘Tis no matter.... Now, sir, I am sorry to say that we shall soon have to part company. My ponies are tired, and I have further to go, and I am going to rest them under this bank for an hour.”
The elder traveller nodded his head indifferently, and the reddleman turned his horses and van in upon the turf, saying, “Good night.” The old man replied, and proceeded on his way as before.
The reddleman watched his form as it diminished to a speck on the road and became absorbed in the thickening films of night. He then took some hay from a truss which was slung up under the van, and, throwing a portion of it in front of the horses, made a pad of the rest, which he laid on the ground beside his vehicle. Upon this he sat down, leaning his back against the wheel. From the interior a low soft breathing came to his ear. It appeared to satisfy him, and he musingly surveyed the scene, as if considering the next step that he should take.
To do things musingly, and by small degrees, seemed, indeed, to be a duty in the Egdon valleys at this transitional hour, for there was that in the condition of the heath itself which resembled protracted and halting dubiousness. It was the quality of the repose appertaining to the scene. This was not the repose of actual stagnation, but the apparent repose of incredible slowness. A condition of healthy life so nearly resembling the torpor of death is a noticeable thing of its sort; to exhibit the inertness of the desert, and at the same time to be exercising powers akin to those of the meadow, and even of the forest, awakened in those who thought of it the attentiveness usually engendered by understatement and reserve.
The scene before the reddleman’s eyes was a gradual series of ascents from the level of the road backward into the heart of the heath. It embraced hillocks, pits, ridges, acclivities, one behind the other, till all was finished by a high hill cutting against the still light sky. The traveller’s eye hovered about these things for a time, and finally settled upon one noteworthy object up there. It was a barrow. This bossy projection of earth above its natural level occupied the loftiest ground of the loneliest height that the heath contained. Although from the vale it appeared but as a wart on an Atlantean brow, its actual bulk was great. It formed the pole and axis of this heathery world.
As the resting man looked at the barrow he became aware that its summit, hitherto the highest object in the whole prospect round, was surmounted by something higher. It rose from the semiglobular mound like a spike from a helmet. The first instinct of an imaginative stranger might have been to suppose it the person of one of the Celts who built the barrow, so far had all of modern date withdrawn from the scene. It seemed a sort of last man among them, musing for a moment before dropping into eternal night with the rest of his race.
There the form stood, motionless as the hill beneath. Above the plain rose the hill, above the hill rose the barrow, and above the barrow rose the figure. Above the figure was nothing that could be mapped elsewhere than on a celestial globe.
Such a perfect, delicate, and necessary finish did the figure give to the dark pile of hills that it seemed to be the only obvious justification of their outline. Without it, there was the dome without the lantern; with it the architectural demands of the mass were satisfied. The scene was strangely homogeneous, in that the vale, the upland, the barrow, and the figure above it amounted only to unity. Looking at this or that member of the group was not observing a complete thing, but a fraction of a thing.
The form was so much like an organic part of the entire motionless structure that to see it move would have impressed the mind as a strange phenomenon. Immobility being the chief characteristic of that whole which the person formed portion of, the discontinuance of immobility in any quarter suggested confusion.
Yet that is what happened. The figure perceptibly gave up its fixity, shifted a step or two, and turned round. As if alarmed, it descended on the right side of the barrow, with the glide of a water-drop down a bud, and then vanished. The movement had been sufficient to show more clearly the characteristics of the figure, and that it was a woman’s.
The reason of her sudden displacement now appeared. With her dropping out of sight on the right side, a newcomer, bearing a burden, protruded into the sky on the left side, ascended the tumulus, and deposited the burden on the top. A second followed, then a third, a fourth, a fifth, and ultimately the whole barrow was peopled with burdened figures.
The only intelligible meaning in this sky-backed pantomime of silhouettes was that the woman had no relation to the forms who had taken her place, was sedulously avoiding these, and had come thither for another object than theirs. The imagination of the observer clung by preference to that vanished, solitary figure, as to something more interesting, more important, more likely to have a history worth knowing than these newcomers, and unconsciously regarded them as intruders. But they remained, and established themselves; and the lonely person who hitherto had been queen of the solitude did not at present seem likely to return.
3—The Custom of the Country
Had a looker-on been posted in the immediate vicinity of the barrow, he would have learned that these persons were boys and men of the neighbouring hamlets. Each, as he ascended the barrow, had been heavily laden with furze faggots, carried upon the shoulder by means of a long stake sharpened at each end for impaling them easily—two in front and two behind. They came from a part of the heath a quarter of a mile to the rear, where furze almost exclusively prevailed as a product.
Every individual was so involved in furze by his method of carrying the faggots that he appeared like a bush on legs till he had thrown them down. The party had marched in trail, like a travelling flock of sheep; that is to say, the strongest first, the weak and young behind.
The loads were all laid together, and a pyramid of furze thirty feet in circumference now occupied the crown of the tumulus, which was known as Rainbarrow for many miles round. Some made themselves busy with matches, and in selecting the driest tufts of furze, others in loosening the bramble bonds which held the faggots together. Others, again, while this was in progress, lifted their eyes and swept the vast expanse of country commanded by their position, now lying nearly obliterated by shade. In the valleys of the heath nothing save its own wild face was visible at any time of day; but this spot commanded a horizon enclosing a tract of far extent, and in many cases lying beyond the heath country. None of its features could be seen now, but the whole made itself felt as a vague stretch of remoteness.
While the men and lads were building the pile, a change took place in the mass of shade which denoted the distant landscape. Red suns and tufts of fire one by one began to arise, flecking the whole country round. They were the bonfires of other parishes and hamlets that were engaged in the same sort of commemoration. Some were distant, and stood in a dense atmosphere, so that bundles of pale straw-like beams radiated around them in the shape of a fan. Some were large and near, glowing scarlet-red from the shade, like wounds in a black hide. Some were Maenades, with winy faces and blown hair. These tinctured the silent bosom of the clouds above them and lit up their ephemeral caves, which seemed thenceforth to become scalding caldrons. Perhaps as many as thirty bonfires could be counted within the whole bounds of the district; and as the hour may be told on a clock-face when the figures themselves are invisible, so did the men recognize the locality of each fire by its angle and direction, though nothing of the scenery could be viewed.
The first tall flame from Rainbarrow sprang into the sky, attracting all eyes that had been fixed on the distant conflagrations back to their own attempt in the same kind. The cheerful blaze streaked the inner surface of the human circle—now increased by other stragglers, male and female—with its own gold livery, and even overlaid the dark turf around with a lively luminousness, which softened off into obscurity where the barrow rounded downwards out of sight. It showed the barrow to be the segment of a globe, as perfect as on the day when it was thrown up, even the little ditch remaining from which the earth was dug. Not a plough had ever disturbed a grain of that stubborn soil. In the heath’s barrenness to the farmer lay its fertility to the historian. There had been no obliteration, because there had been no tending.
It seemed as if the bonfire-makers were standing in some radiant upper story of the world, detached from and independent of the dark stretches below. The heath down there was now a vast abyss, and no longer a continuation of what they stood on; for their eyes, adapted to the blaze, could see nothing of the deeps beyond its influence. Occasionally, it is true, a more vigorous flare than usual from their faggots sent darting lights like aides-de-camp down the inclines to some distant bush, pool, or patch of white sand, kindling these to replies of the same colour, till all was lost in darkness again. Then the whole black phenomenon beneath represented Limbo as viewed from the brink by the sublime Florentine in his vision, and the muttered articulations of the wind in the hollows were as complaints and petitions from the “souls of mighty worth” suspended therein.
It was as if these men and boys had suddenly dived into past ages, and fetched therefrom an hour and deed which had before been familiar with this spot. The ashes of the original British pyre which blazed from that summit lay fresh and undisturbed in the barrow beneath their tread. The flames from funeral piles long ago kindled there had shone down upon the lowlands as these were shining now. Festival fires to Thor and Woden had followed on the same ground and duly had their day. Indeed, it is pretty well known that such blazes as this the heathmen were now enjoying are rather the lineal descendants from jumbled Druidical rites and Saxon ceremonies than the invention of popular feeling about Gunpowder Plot.
Moreover to light a fire is the instinctive and resistant act of man when, at the winter ingress, the curfew is sounded throughout Nature. It indicates a spontaneous, Promethean rebelliousness against that fiat that this recurrent season shall bring foul times, cold darkness, misery and death. Black chaos comes, and the fettered gods of the earth say, Let there be light.
The brilliant lights and sooty shades which struggled upon the skin and clothes of the persons standing round caused their lineaments and general contours to be drawn with Dureresque vigour and dash. Yet the permanent moral expression of each face it was impossible to discover, for as the nimble flames towered, nodded, and swooped through the surrounding air, the blots of shade and flakes of light upon the countenances of the group changed shape and position endlessly. All was unstable; quivering as leaves, evanescent as lightning. Shadowy eye-sockets, deep as those of a death’s head, suddenly turned into pits of lustre: a lantern-jaw was cavernous, then it was shining; wrinkles were emphasized to ravines, or obliterated entirely by a changed ray. Nostrils were dark wells; sinews in old necks were gilt mouldings; things with no particular polish on them were glazed; bright objects, such as the tip of a furze-hook one of the men carried, were as glass; eyeballs glowed like little lanterns. Those whom Nature had depicted as merely quaint became grotesque, the grotesque became preternatural; for all was in extremity.
Hence it may be that the face of an old man, who had like others been called to the heights by the rising flames, was not really the mere nose and chin that it appeared to be, but an appreciable quantity of human countenance. He stood complacently sunning himself in the heat. With a speaker, or stake, he tossed the outlying scraps of fuel into the conflagration, looking at the midst of the pile, occasionally lifting his eyes to measure the height of the flame, or to follow the great sparks which rose with it and sailed away into darkness. The beaming sight, and the penetrating warmth, seemed to breed in him a cumulative cheerfulness, which soon amounted to delight. With his stick in his hand he began to jig a private minuet, a bunch of copper seals shining and swinging like a pendulum from under his waistcoat: he also began to sing, in the voice of a bee up a flue—
“The king’ call’d down’ his no-bles all’,
By one’, by two’, by three’;
Earl Mar’-shal, I’ll’ go shrive’-the queen’,
And thou’ shalt wend’ with me’.
“A boon’, a boon’, quoth Earl’ Mar-shal’,
And fell’ on his bend’-ded knee’,
That what’-so-e’er’ the queen’ shall say’,
No harm’ there-of’ may be’.”
Want of breath prevented a continuance of the song; and the breakdown attracted the attention of a firm-standing man of middle age, who kept each corner of his crescent-shaped mouth rigorously drawn back into his cheek, as if to do away with any suspicion of mirthfulness which might erroneously have attached to him.
“A fair stave, Grandfer Cantle; but I am afeard ‘tis too much for the mouldy weasand of such a old man as you,” he said to the wrinkled reveller. “Dostn’t wish th’ wast three sixes again, Grandfer, as you was when you first learnt to sing it?”
“Hey?” said Grandfer Cantle, stopping in his dance.
“Dostn’t wish wast young again, I say? There’s a hole in thy poor bellows nowadays seemingly.”
“But there’s good art in me? If I couldn’t make a little wind go a long ways I should seem no younger than the most aged man, should I, Timothy?”
“And how about the new-married folks down there at the Quiet Woman Inn?” the other inquired, pointing towards a dim light in the direction of the distant highway, but considerably apart from where the reddleman was at that moment resting. “What’s the rights of the matter about ‘em? You ought to know, being an understanding man.”
“But a little rakish, hey? I own to it. Master Cantle is that, or he’s nothing. Yet ‘tis a gay fault, neigbbour Fairway, that age will cure.”
“I heard that they were coming home tonight. By this time they must have come. What besides?”
“The next thing is for us to go and wish ‘em joy, I suppose?”
“No? Now, I thought we must. I must, or ‘twould be very unlike me—the first in every spree that’s going!
“Do thou’ put on’ a fri’-ar’s coat’,
And I’ll’ put on’ a-no’-ther,
And we’ will to’ Queen Ele’anor go’,
Like Fri’ar and’ his bro’ther.
I met Mis’ess Yeobright, the young bride’s aunt, last night, and she told me that her son Clym was coming home a’ Christmas. Wonderful clever, ‘a believe—ah, I should like to have all that’s under that young man’s hair. Well, then, I spoke to her in my well-known merry way, and she said, ‘O that what’s shaped so venerable should talk like a fool!’—that’s what she said to me. I don’t care for her, be jowned if I do, and so I told her. ‘Be jowned if I care for ‘ee,’ I said. I had her there—hey?”
“I rather think she had you,” said Fairway.
“No,” said Grandfer Cantle, his countenance slightly flagging. “‘Tisn’t so bad as that with me?”
“Seemingly ‘tis, however, is it because of the wedding that Clym is coming home a’ Christmas—to make a new arrangement because his mother is now left in the house alone?”
“Yes, yes—that’s it. But, Timothy, hearken to me,” said the Grandfer earnestly. “Though known as such a joker, I be an understanding man if you catch me serious, and I am serious now. I can tell ‘ee lots about the married couple. Yes, this morning at six o’clock they went up the country to do the job, and neither vell nor mark have been seen of ‘em since, though I reckon that this afternoon has brought ‘em home again man and woman—wife, that is. Isn’t it spoke like a man, Timothy, and wasn’t Mis’ess Yeobright wrong about me?”
“Yes, it will do. I didn’t know the two had walked together since last fall, when her aunt forbad the banns. How long has this new set-to been in mangling then? Do you know, Humphrey?”
“Yes, how long?” said Grandfer Cantle smartly, likewise turning to Humphrey. “I ask that question.”
“Ever since her aunt altered her mind, and said she might have the man after all,” replied Humphrey, without removing his eyes from the fire. He was a somewhat solemn young fellow, and carried the hook and leather gloves of a furze-cutter, his legs, by reason of that occupation, being sheathed in bulging leggings as stiff as the Philistine’s greaves of brass. “That’s why they went away to be married, I count. You see, after kicking up such a nunny-watch and forbidding the banns ‘twould have made Mis’ess Yeobright seem foolish-like to have a banging wedding in the same parish all as if she’d never gainsaid it.”
“Exactly—seem foolish-like; and that’s very bad for the poor things that be so, though I only guess as much, to be sure,” said Grandfer Cantle, still strenuously preserving a sensible bearing and mien.
“Ah, well, I was at church that day,” said Fairway, “which was a very curious thing to happen.”
“If ‘twasn’t my name’s Simple,” said the Grandfer emphatically. “I ha’n’t been there to-year; and now the winter is a-coming on I won’t say I shall.”
“I ha’n’t been these three years,” said Humphrey; “for I’m so dead sleepy of a Sunday; and ‘tis so terrible far to get there; and when you do get there ‘tis such a mortal poor chance that you’ll be chose for up above, when so many bain’t, that I bide at home and don’t go at all.”
“I not only happened to be there,” said Fairway, with a fresh collection of emphasis, “but I was sitting in the same pew as Mis’ess Yeobright. And though you may not see it as such, it fairly made my blood run cold to hear her. Yes, it is a curious thing; but it made my blood run cold, for I was close at her elbow.” The speaker looked round upon the bystanders, now drawing closer to hear him, with his lips gathered tighter than ever in the rigorousness of his descriptive moderation.
“‘Tis a serious job to have things happen to ‘ee there,” said a woman behind.
“‘Ye are to declare it,’ was the parson’s words,” Fairway continued. “And then up stood a woman at my side—a-touching of me. ‘Well, be damned if there isn’t Mis’ess Yeobright a-standing up,’ I said to myself. Yes, neighbours, though I was in the temple of prayer that’s what I said. ‘Tis against my conscience to curse and swear in company, and I hope any woman here will overlook it. Still what I did say I did say, and ‘twould be a lie if I didn’t own it.”
“So ‘twould, neighbour Fairway.”
“‘Be damned if there isn’t Mis’ess Yeobright a-standing up,’ I said,” the narrator repeated, giving out the bad word with the same passionless severity of face as before, which proved how entirely necessity and not gusto had to do with the iteration. “And the next thing I heard was, ‘I forbid the banns,’ from her. ‘I’ll speak to you after the service,’ said the parson, in quite a homely way—yes, turning all at once into a common man no holier than you or I. Ah, her face was pale! Maybe you can call to mind that monument in Weatherbury church—the cross-legged soldier that have had his arm knocked away by the schoolchildren? Well, he would about have matched that woman’s face, when she said, ‘I forbid the banns.’”
The audience cleared their throats and tossed a few stalks into the fire, not because these deeds were urgent, but to give themselves time to weigh the moral of the story.
“I’m sure when I heard they’d been forbid I felt as glad as if anybody had gied me sixpence,” said an earnest voice—that of Olly Dowden, a woman who lived by making heath brooms, or besoms. Her nature was to be civil to enemies as well as to friends, and grateful to all the world for letting her remain alive.
“And now the maid have married him just the same,” said Humphrey.
“After that Mis’ess Yeobright came round and was quite agreeable,” Fairway resumed, with an unheeding air, to show that his words were no appendage to Humphrey’s, but the result of independent reflection.
“Supposing they were ashamed, I don’t see why they shouldn’t have done it here-right,” said a wide-spread woman whose stays creaked like shoes whenever she stooped or turned. “‘Tis well to call the neighbours together and to hae a good racket once now and then; and it may as well be when there’s a wedding as at tide-times. I don’t care for close ways.”
“Ah, now, you’d hardly believe it, but I don’t care for gay weddings,” said Timothy Fairway, his eyes again travelling round. “I hardly blame Thomasin Yeobright and neighbour Wildeve for doing it quiet, if I must own it. A wedding at home means five and six-handed reels by the hour; and they do a man’s legs no good when he’s over forty.”
“True. Once at the woman’s house you can hardly say nay to being one in a jig, knowing all the time that you be expected to make yourself worth your victuals.”
“You be bound to dance at Christmas because ‘tis the time o’ year; you must dance at weddings because ‘tis the time o’ life. At christenings folk will even smuggle in a reel or two, if ‘tis no further on than the first or second chiel. And this is not naming the songs you’ve got to sing.... For my part I like a good hearty funeral as well as anything. You’ve as splendid victuals and drink as at other parties, and even better. And it don’t wear your legs to stumps in talking over a poor fellow’s ways as it do to stand up in hornpipes.”
“Nine folks out of ten would own ‘twas going too far to dance then, I suppose?” suggested Grandfer Cantle.
“‘Tis the only sort of party a staid man can feel safe at after the mug have been round a few times.”
“Well, I can’t understand a quiet ladylike little body like Tamsin Yeobright caring to be married in such a mean way,” said Susan Nunsuch, the wide woman, who preferred the original subject. “‘Tis worse than the poorest do. And I shouldn’t have cared about the man, though some may say he’s good-looking.”
“To give him his due he’s a clever, learned fellow in his way—a’most as clever as Clym Yeobright used to be. He was brought up to better things than keeping the Quiet Woman. An engineer—that’s what the man was, as we know; but he threw away his chance, and so ‘a took a public house to live. His learning was no use to him at all.”
“Very often the case,” said Olly, the besom-maker. “And yet how people do strive after it and get it! The class of folk that couldn’t use to make a round O to save their bones from the pit can write their names now without a sputter of the pen, oftentimes without a single blot—what do I say?—why, almost without a desk to lean their stomachs and elbows upon.”
“True—‘tis amazing what a polish the world have been brought to,” said Humphrey.
“Why, afore I went a soldier in the Bang-up Locals (as we was called), in the year four,” chimed in Grandfer Cantle brightly, “I didn’t know no more what the world was like than the commonest man among ye. And now, jown it all, I won’t say what I bain’t fit for, hey?”
“Couldst sign the book, no doubt,” said Fairway, “if wast young enough to join hands with a woman again, like Wildeve and Mis’ess Tamsin, which is more than Humph there could do, for he follows his father in learning. Ah, Humph, well I can mind when I was married how I zid thy father’s mark staring me in the face as I went to put down my name. He and your mother were the couple married just afore we were and there stood they father’s cross with arms stretched out like a great banging scarecrow. What a terrible black cross that was—thy father’s very likeness in en! To save my soul I couldn’t help laughing when I zid en, though all the time I was as hot as dog-days, what with the marrying, and what with the woman a-hanging to me, and what with Jack Changley and a lot more chaps grinning at me through church window. But the next moment a strawmote would have knocked me down, for I called to mind that if thy father and mother had had high words once, they’d been at it twenty times since they’d been man and wife, and I zid myself as the next poor stunpoll to get into the same mess.... Ah—well, what a day ‘twas!”
“Wildeve is older than Tamsin Yeobright by a good-few summers. A pretty maid too she is. A young woman with a home must be a fool to tear her smock for a man like that.”
The speaker, a peat- or turf-cutter, who had newly joined the group, carried across his shoulder the singular heart-shaped spade of large dimensions used in that species of labour, and its well-whetted edge gleamed like a silver bow in the beams of the fire.
“A hundred maidens would have had him if he’d asked ‘em,” said the wide woman.
“Didst ever know a man, neighbour, that no woman at all would marry?” inquired Humphrey.
“I never did,” said the turf-cutter.
“Nor I,” said another.
“Nor I,” said Grandfer Cantle.
“Well, now, I did once,” said Timothy Fairway, adding more firmness to one of his legs. “I did know of such a man. But only once, mind.” He gave his throat a thorough rake round, as if it were the duty of every person not to be mistaken through thickness of voice. “Yes, I knew of such a man,” he said.
“And what ghastly gallicrow might the poor fellow have been like, Master Fairway?” asked the turf-cutter.
“Well, ‘a was neither a deaf man, nor a dumb man, nor a blind man. What ‘a was I don’t say.”
“Is he known in these parts?” said Olly Dowden.
“Hardly,” said Timothy; “but I name no name.... Come, keep the fire up there, youngsters.”
“Whatever is Christian Cantle’s teeth a-chattering for?” said a boy from amid the smoke and shades on the other side of the blaze. “Be ye a-cold, Christian?”
A thin jibbering voice was heard to reply, “No, not at all.”
“Come forward, Christian, and show yourself. I didn’t know you were here,” said Fairway, with a humane look across towards that quarter.
Thus requested, a faltering man, with reedy hair, no shoulders, and a great quantity of wrist and ankle beyond his clothes, advanced a step or two by his own will, and was pushed by the will of others half a dozen steps more. He was Grandfer Cantle’s youngest son.
“What be ye quaking for, Christian?” said the turf-cutter kindly.
“I’m the man.”
“The man no woman will marry.”
“The deuce you be!” said Timothy Fairway, enlarging his gaze to cover Christian’s whole surface and a great deal more, Grandfer Cantle meanwhile staring as a hen stares at the duck she has hatched.
“Yes, I be he; and it makes me afeard,” said Christian. “D’ye think ‘twill hurt me? I shall always say I don’t care, and swear to it, though I do care all the while.”
“Well, be damned if this isn’t the queerest start ever I know’d,” said Mr. Fairway. “I didn’t mean you at all. There’s another in the country, then! Why did ye reveal yer misfortune, Christian?”
“‘Twas to be if ‘twas, I suppose. I can’t help it, can I?” He turned upon them his painfully circular eyes, surrounded by concentric lines like targets.
“No, that’s true. But ‘tis a melancholy thing, and my blood ran cold when you spoke, for I felt there were two poor fellows where I had thought only one. ‘Tis a sad thing for ye, Christian. How’st know the women won’t hae thee?”
“I’ve asked ‘em.”
“Sure I should never have thought you had the face. Well, and what did the last one say to ye? Nothing that can’t be got over, perhaps, after all?”
“‘Get out of my sight, you slack-twisted, slim-looking maphrotight fool,’ was the woman’s words to me.”
“Not encouraging, I own,” said Fairway. “‘Get out of my sight, you slack-twisted, slim-looking maphrotight fool,’ is rather a hard way of saying No. But even that might be overcome by time and patience, so as to let a few grey hairs show themselves in the hussy’s head. How old be you, Christian?”
“Thirty-one last tatie-digging, Mister Fairway.”
“Not a boy—not a boy. Still there’s hope yet.”
“That’s my age by baptism, because that’s put down in the great book of the Judgment that they keep in church vestry; but Mother told me I was born some time afore I was christened.”
“But she couldn’t tell when, to save her life, except that there was no moon.”
“No moon—that’s bad. Hey, neighbours, that’s bad for him!”
“Yes, ‘tis bad,” said Grandfer Cantle, shaking his head.
“Mother know’d ‘twas no moon, for she asked another woman that had an almanac, as she did whenever a boy was born to her, because of the saying, ‘No moon, no man,’ which made her afeard every man-child she had. Do ye really think it serious, Mister Fairway, that there was no moon?”
“Yes. ‘No moon, no man.’ ‘Tis one of the truest sayings ever spit out. The boy never comes to anything that’s born at new moon. A bad job for thee, Christian, that you should have showed your nose then of all days in the month.”
“I suppose the moon was terrible full when you were born?” said Christian, with a look of hopeless admiration at Fairway.
“Well, ‘a was not new,” Mr. Fairway replied, with a disinterested gaze.
“I’d sooner go without drink at Lammas-tide than be a man of no moon,” continued Christian, in the same shattered recitative. “‘Tis said I be only the rames of a man, and no good for my race at all; and I suppose that’s the cause o’t.”
“Ay,” said Grandfer Cantle, somewhat subdued in spirit; “and yet his mother cried for scores of hours when ‘a was a boy, for fear he should outgrow hisself and go for a soldier.”
“Well, there’s many just as bad as he.” said Fairway.
“Wethers must live their time as well as other sheep, poor soul.”
“So perhaps I shall rub on? Ought I to be afeared o’ nights, Master Fairway?”
“You’ll have to lie alone all your life; and ‘tis not to married couples but to single sleepers that a ghost shows himself when ‘a do come. One has been seen lately, too. A very strange one.”
“No—don’t talk about it if ‘tis agreeable of ye not to! ‘Twill make my skin crawl when I think of it in bed alone. But you will—ah, you will, I know, Timothy; and I shall dream all night o’t! A very strange one? What sort of a spirit did ye mean when ye said, a very strange one, Timothy?—no, no—don’t tell me.”
“I don’t half believe in spirits myself. But I think it ghostly enough—what I was told. ‘Twas a little boy that zid it.”
“What was it like?—no, don’t—”
“A red one. Yes, most ghosts be white; but this is as if it had been dipped in blood.”
Christian drew a deep breath without letting it expand his body, and Humphrey said, “Where has it been seen?”
“Not exactly here; but in this same heth. But ‘tisn’t a thing to talk about. What do ye say,” continued Fairway in brisker tones, and turning upon them as if the idea had not been Grandfer Cantle’s—“what do you say to giving the new man and wife a bit of a song tonight afore we go to bed—being their wedding-day? When folks are just married ‘tis as well to look glad o’t, since looking sorry won’t unjoin ‘em. I am no drinker, as we know, but when the womenfolk and youngsters have gone home we can drop down across to the Quiet Woman, and strike up a ballet in front of the married folks’ door. ‘Twill please the young wife, and that’s what I should like to do, for many’s the skinful I’ve had at her hands when she lived with her aunt at Blooms-End.”
“Hey? And so we will!” said Grandfer Cantle, turning so briskly that his copper seals swung extravagantly. “I’m as dry as a kex with biding up here in the wind, and I haven’t seen the colour of drink since nammet-time today. ‘Tis said that the last brew at the Woman is very pretty drinking. And, neighbours, if we should be a little late in the finishing, why, tomorrow’s Sunday, and we can sleep it off?”
“Grandfer Cantle! you take things very careless for an old man,” said the wide woman.
“I take things careless; I do—too careless to please the women! Klk! I’ll sing the ‘Jovial Crew,’ or any other song, when a weak old man would cry his eyes out. Jown it; I am up for anything.
“The king’ look’d o’-ver his left’ shoul-der’,
And a grim’ look look’-ed hee’,
Earl Mar’-shal, he said’, but for’ my oath’
Or hang’-ed thou’ shouldst bee’.”
“Well, that’s what we’ll do,” said Fairway. “We’ll give ‘em a song, an’ it please the Lord. What’s the good of Thomasin’s cousin Clym a-coming home after the deed’s done? He should have come afore, if so be he wanted to stop it, and marry her himself.”
“Perhaps he’s coming to bide with his mother a little time, as she must feel lonely now the maid’s gone.”
“Now, ‘tis very odd, but I never feel lonely—no, not at all,” said Grandfer Cantle. “I am as brave in the nighttime as a’ admiral!”
The bonfire was by this time beginning to sink low, for the fuel had not been of that substantial sort which can support a blaze long. Most of the other fires within the wide horizon were also dwindling weak. Attentive observation of their brightness, colour, and length of existence would have revealed the quality of the material burnt, and through that, to some extent the natural produce of the district in which each bonfire was situate. The clear, kingly effulgence that had characterized the majority expressed a heath and furze country like their own, which in one direction extended an unlimited number of miles; the rapid flares and extinctions at other points of the compass showed the lightest of fuel—straw, beanstalks, and the usual waste from arable land. The most enduring of all—steady unaltering eyes like Planets—signified wood, such as hazel-branches, thorn-faggots, and stout billets. Fires of the last-mentioned materials were rare, and though comparatively small in magnitude beside the transient blazes, now began to get the best of them by mere long continuance. The great ones had perished, but these remained. They occupied the remotest visible positions—sky-backed summits rising out of rich coppice and plantation districts to the north, where the soil was different, and heath foreign and strange.
Save one; and this was the nearest of any, the moon of the whole shining throng. It lay in a direction precisely opposite to that of the little window in the vale below. Its nearness was such that, notwithstanding its actual smallness, its glow infinitely transcended theirs.
This quiet eye had attracted attention from time to time; and when their own fire had become sunken and dim it attracted more; some even of the wood fires more recently lighted had reached their decline, but no change was perceptible here.
“To be sure, how near that fire is!” said Fairway. “Seemingly. I can see a fellow of some sort walking round it. Little and good must be said of that fire, surely.”
“I can throw a stone there,” said the boy.
“And so can I!” said Grandfer Cantle.
“No, no, you can’t, my sonnies. That fire is not much less than a mile off, for all that ‘a seems so near.”
“‘Tis in the heath, but no furze,” said the turf-cutter.
“‘Tis cleft-wood, that’s what ‘tis,” said Timothy Fairway. “Nothing would burn like that except clean timber. And ‘tis on the knap afore the old captain’s house at Mistover. Such a queer mortal as that man is! To have a little fire inside your own bank and ditch, that nobody else may enjoy it or come anigh it! And what a zany an old chap must be, to light a bonfire when there’s no youngsters to please.”
“Cap’n Vye has been for a long walk today, and is quite tired out,” said Grandfer Cantle, “so ‘tisn’t likely to be he.”
“And he would hardly afford good fuel like that,” said the wide woman.
“Then it must be his granddaughter,” said Fairway. “Not that a body of her age can want a fire much.”
“She is very strange in her ways, living up there by herself, and such things please her,” said Susan.
“She’s a well-favoured maid enough,” said Humphrey the furze-cutter, “especially when she’s got one of her dandy gowns on.”
“That’s true,” said Fairway. “Well, let her bonfire burn an’t will. Ours is well-nigh out by the look o’t.”
“How dark ‘tis now the fire’s gone down!” said Christian Cantle, looking behind him with his hare eyes. “Don’t ye think we’d better get home-along, neighbours? The heth isn’t haunted, I know; but we’d better get home.... Ah, what was that?”
“Only the wind,” said the turf-cutter.
“I don’t think Fifth-of-Novembers ought to be kept up by night except in towns. It should be by day in outstep, ill-accounted places like this!”
“Nonsense, Christian. Lift up your spirits like a man! Susy, dear, you and I will have a jig—hey, my honey?—before ‘tis quite too dark to see how well-favoured you be still, though so many summers have passed since your husband, a son of a witch, snapped you up from me.”
This was addressed to Susan Nunsuch; and the next circumstance of which the beholders were conscious was a vision of the matron’s broad form whisking off towards the space whereon the fire had been kindled. She was lifted bodily by Mr. Fairway’s arm, which had been flung round her waist before she had become aware of his intention. The site of the fire was now merely a circle of ashes flecked with red embers and sparks, the furze having burnt completely away. Once within the circle he whirled her round and round in a dance. She was a woman noisily constructed; in addition to her enclosing framework of whalebone and lath, she wore pattens summer and winter, in wet weather and in dry, to preserve her boots from wear; and when Fairway began to jump about with her, the clicking of the pattens, the creaking of the stays, and her screams of surprise, formed a very audible concert.
“I’ll crack thy numskull for thee, you mandy chap!” said Mrs. Nunsuch, as she helplessly danced round with him, her feet playing like drumsticks among the sparks. “My ankles were all in a fever before, from walking through that prickly furze, and now you must make ‘em worse with these vlankers!”
The vagary of Timothy Fairway was infectious. The turf-cutter seized old Olly Dowden, and, somewhat more gently, poussetted with her likewise. The young men were not slow to imitate the example of their elders, and seized the maids; Grandfer Cantle and his stick jigged in the form of a three-legged object among the rest; and in half a minute all that could be seen on Rainbarrow was a whirling of dark shapes amid a boiling confusion of sparks, which leapt around the dancers as high as their waists. The chief noises were women’s shrill cries, men’s laughter, Susan’s stays and pattens, Olly Dowden’s “heu-heu-heu!” and the strumming of the wind upon the furze-bushes, which formed a kind of tune to the demoniac measure they trod. Christian alone stood aloof, uneasily rocking himself as he murmured, “They ought not to do it—how the vlankers do fly! ‘tis tempting the Wicked one, ‘tis.”
“What was that?” said one of the lads, stopping.
“Ah—where?” said Christian, hastily closing up to the rest.
The dancers all lessened their speed.
“‘Twas behind you, Christian, that I heard it—down here.”
“Yes—‘tis behind me!” Christian said. “Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, bless the bed that I lie on; four angels guard—”
“Hold your tongue. What is it?” said Fairway.
“Hoi-i-i-i!” cried a voice from the darkness.
“Halloo-o-o-o!” said Fairway.
“Is there any cart track up across here to Mis’ess Yeobright’s, of Blooms-End?” came to them in the same voice, as a long, slim indistinct figure approached the barrow.
“Ought we not to run home as hard as we can, neighbours, as ‘tis getting late?” said Christian. “Not run away from one another, you know; run close together, I mean.”
“Scrape up a few stray locks of furze, and make a blaze, so that we can see who the man is,” said Fairway.
When the flame arose it revealed a young man in tight raiment, and red from top to toe. “Is there a track across here to Mis’ess Yeobright’s house?” he repeated.
“Ay—keep along the path down there.”
“I mean a way two horses and a van can travel over?”
“Well, yes; you can get up the vale below here with time. The track is rough, but if you’ve got a light your horses may pick along wi’ care. Have ye brought your cart far up, neighbour reddleman?”
“I’ve left it in the bottom, about half a mile back, I stepped on in front to make sure of the way, as ‘tis night-time, and I han’t been here for so long.”
“Oh, well you can get up,” said Fairway. “What a turn it did give me when I saw him!” he added to the whole group, the reddleman included. “Lord’s sake, I thought, whatever fiery mommet is this come to trouble us? No slight to your looks, reddleman, for ye bain’t bad-looking in the groundwork, though the finish is queer. My meaning is just to say how curious I felt. I half thought it ‘twas the devil or the red ghost the boy told of.”
“It gied me a turn likewise,” said Susan Nunsuch, “for I had a dream last night of a death’s head.”
“Don’t ye talk o’t no more,” said Christian. “If he had a handkerchief over his head he’d look for all the world like the Devil in the picture of the Temptation.”
“Well, thank you for telling me,” said the young reddleman, smiling faintly. “And good night t’ye all.”
He withdrew from their sight down the barrow.
“I fancy I’ve seen that young man’s face before,” said Humphrey. “But where, or how, or what his name is, I don’t know.”
The reddleman had not been gone more than a few minutes when another person approached the partially revived bonfire. It proved to be a well-known and respected widow of the neighbourhood, of a standing which can only be expressed by the word genteel. Her face, encompassed by the blackness of the receding heath, showed whitely, and with-out half-lights, like a cameo.
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