On the Western Circuit ( a love story by Thomas Hardy )
The house where the young girl lived was a large mansion with several windows on each floor. On the first floor, in a large drawing-room, sat a lady. She looked thirty years old. The room was unlit, but some light from the window was enough to reveal the lady’s face. She was an interesting creature rather than a handsome woman; dark-eyed, thoughtful, and with sensitive lips.
A man entered the room.
“O, Edith, I didn’t see you,” he said. “Why are you sitting here in the dark?”
“I am looking at the fair,” replied the lady in a low voice.
‘”Oh? Horrid nuisance every year!”
“I like it.”
“H’m. Tastes differ.”
For a moment he looked from the window with her 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 allowed her to go for ten minutes only.”
“Shall I go and look for her, m’m?” said the housemaid readily.
“No. It is not necessary: she is a good girl and will come soon.”
However, when the servant had gone Mrs Harnham stood up and went up to her room, put on her cloak and a hat, and went 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 I must sure that she’s all right. Will you come with me?”
“Oh, she’s all right. I saw her on one of those roundabout 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 go alone.”
She left the house and entered the crowd in the market place where she soon discovered Anna, seated on the revolving horse. As soon as it stopped, Mrs Harnham came up to her and said severely “Anna, how can you be such a wild girl? You were only to be out for ten minutes.”
Anna looked confused, and the young man who was standing near her, tried to explain:
“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 offered 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 go away.
But this for the moment it was not so easy to do. Something had attracted the crowd to this spot, and the wine-merchant’s wife found herself pressed against the young man 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 this hand was Anna’s.
What made her to refrain from telling him the truth she could hardly tell. Several minutes passed before the crowd thinned sufficiently to allow Mrs Harnham to move away.
‘How did they get to know each other, I wonder?’ she thought.
She was so impressed by the stranger’s manner and voice, by the tenderness of his touch, and while going back towards her house, she turned back again and watched the pair. She was little less impulsive than Anna but she couldn’t but admit that he was so well-bred, so gentlemanly, so fascinating, and had such beautiful eyes.
Finally Anna and her acquaintance parted and Anna went to Mrs Harnham’s house.
“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 tonight?”
“No doubt you told him your name and everything about yourself?”
“He asked me.”
“But he didn’t tell you his?”
“Yes ma’am, he did!” exclaimed Anna. “It is Charles Bradford, of London.”
“Well, if he’s respectable, of course I’ve nothing to say against him,” remarked her mistress. “But I must reconsider all that, if he attempts to renew your acquaintance. A country girl like you, who has never lived in Melchester till this month, to capture a young Londoner like him!’
“I didn’t capture him. I didn’t do anything,” said Anna in confusion.
The next morning the emotional Edith Harnham went to the usual weekday service in Melchester cathedral. As soon as she had taken her seat, he entered and sat down opposite her, interested in the architecture of the cathedral. He did not notice her but Mrs Harnham was glancing at him from time to time and wondered more than ever what had attracted him in her little silly maid-servant. The young man left; 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 art of love as it was evidently known to him who had mistakenly caressed her hand.