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CHAPTER XLVI. CARRYING THE HAY IN THE STAR MEADOW. The next morning—though by that time she had lost her yearning towards life-a messenger of hope did come to Hirell.
It was about eight o'clock, an hour before Mrs. Chamberlayne's breakfast-time, that, having dressed herself, Hirell sat down near her window and began some needlework; stitching rapidly, as if she could keep off dangerous thoughts with the point of her needle ; and to show the tears that always came pressing at this hour when body and soul felt weakest, that there was no time for their falling. The curtains of her window were open only just wide enough for her to see a green tree, whose leaves had come later than those of its neighbours, and were fresher and paler. The sun was shining on them, and they were very bright-quite luminous, as with a light of their own.
Suddenly she heard a rush of swift small wings, and, looking up, saw that a little brown bird had perched at the end of a twig of the bright tree, and was swinging vehemently to and fro.
Something about the bird made Hirell lay down her work and look at it. It was a sparrow, very sleek and small, his little bead-like eye glittering in the sun. Surfeited with the summer's sweets, his breast throbbing as though it would burst, he had come there wild for solitude, to embower and hide himself from all his mates, and to swing and to rock himself alone, balancing his happy little heart. He turned his head from side to side, and chirruped sharply. And still he rocked and swung, and his shadow was on one of the leaves as they waved about him, bright as with the light of that mysterious world from which they had so lately come. Sometimes he would lift his tiny wings, spreading them out to the breeze and stroking them with his beak, as if even his little feathers were cloyed with happiness.
After he had been there a while he flew away refreshed by his brief solitude, and Hirell felt as if the tiny shadow that had left the leaf staid and quivered over her heart still.
The overflow of the little creature's joy went to her grief
and swelled it till its bitter waters found passage from her eyes.
Where was this sweetness and this joy with which her small guest was so sated and overburdened ? Was there such wealth at a little sparrow's service, and none for a starving human heart?
She draws back her curtain and looks out with a yearning and hungry look for the first time since she has been in Kent, desiring to see. She does see: and soon her eyes begin to lose their haggard hopelessness, and to grow soft and absorbed. She leans her head on her hand, and a tenderness comes over her face, and a peace that is almost gladness.
The road that lies between Hirell and the two long meadows is unusually silent and deserted; for the hay-fields form the centre of attraction. Under the long hedge on the stubble are seated in a row such little girls from the village as are spared the discipline of the Nytimber school on account of the babies, whose calico sun-bonnets, which reveal nothing of their owners but a rattle or a buttercup-grasping fist, dot the field in con. siderable numbers, like some strange fungi peculiar to haytime. That half of the Star meadow which lies nearest the road is cleared of the fragrant heaps that in orderly profusion still lie on the farthest half, right to where the hedge divides it from a cornfield of lustrous young green; and beyond the cornfield wave the grasses of another meadow in all their glory of sorrel, and flower, and seed. Here the mowers are at work, driving the sharp line of tall, blooming grass farther and farther away.
This field shelves suddenly down, so that Hirell sees the wagon, which is in the middle of the meadow, nearest her, standing against the sky with its rich yellow load ; on the top of which a man, with careless hardihood, is standing, holding a hayfork, receiving and packing down the fresh contributions to the russet load that the others are tossing up to him. On the right is a hill covered with a little forest of hopsticks, whose bare tops look strange enough ; for the tightly-clinging fresh young plants afford them as yet but a scant covering. On the left of the hayfields is the avenue and the Hooded House, the grounds of which are separated from the black, furrowed field where the plough is at work, by a great cluster of oaks; whose leaves are now in their freshest gold-green beauty, and still retain that crisp crimp of the folds in which
they have lain in the bud. A delicious gurgling of young throats and old ones comes from this copse; and now and then an army of chattering specks, disorganised and uncertain, will rise from its midst, advance and hover over the cornfield, then, at the report of an unseen gun, wheel round and retreat in the blue distance, spreading and condensing, and again spreading and condensing, with a strange sort of disorderly method.
Early as it is indoors, the day appears to have attained its noon heat and mellowness. A sky of deep, burning blue spreads like a thing that can never change, over the full country; the sun, a clear ball, pale with intensity, is high, smiting even lusty strength with languor; the heavily-maned team-horses smokeas their great limbs strain over the furrows, while the ploughman takes mechanically his toilsome, plunging steps beside them, and the baymakers twirl their forks with a slow monotonous movement, a subdued strength that looks like sleepy indolence.
While every dog-rose on the hedges, and every bell of the little bindweed under the hedges, had its deepest secrets of tint and perfume, and golden floss laid bare to the burning sun, the flowers on the shady side of the garden, of which a small slip is visible from Hirell's window, still remain in their dewy stillness, like sleeping princesses in a guarded palace. The heavy, wet lilac plumes are drooping and still among their leaves ; the laburnum's gold tresses lie in tangled, dewy luxuriance on the wall top; over which a great bee, tired of the field beauties, comes humming noisily into the quiet garden.
The wagon, with its russet load standing out against the sky, and making, by its hugeness, horses and men look small, is quite the centre-piece of the picture-set in a grand halfoval—by the hop-pole-covered hill on the right side, and the avenue trees and thatched gables of the hooded house on the left. Towards it stare the cows, as they lift their drowsy, dripping faces from the open pond near the road; and the mowers, in the farthest field beyond the corn, always look that way when they pause to rest and spit upon their palms.
Hirell's gaze also constantly returns to it, for it is the figure standing on the piled-up load that imparts to these scenes the familiarity and homeliness they have suddenly assumed for her. She owes to him the vague sweet memories of them, memories that have been lost, but that come again and take away the strangeness the place has worn till now. The sight of him reminds her that what she sees should not be strange, but as the reading, in its original language, of a poem, of which she has once heard with delight a feeble translation as the listening to a melody, of which the key-note was struck long years ago.
On the broken wall, at the back of Bod Elian, she has often sat with Robert, talking of these scenes, and he has kicked the fallen stones into rough models of the house, the church, and the stocks, the pound, and the fields, with their dividing hedges and rustic fences and gates, striving hard to prove to her that if her father could ever be prevailed upon to let her spend a week with his mother at Brockhurst, when Robert himself was at home for the holidays, that week would fall little short in its effects of seven days spent in paradise. Hirell, in the time of her childish doubts of, and secret rebellion against, the austere religion and life of her small prison-like world, had begun to long for a taste of the rich plenty and sunny freedom of Robert's home, the reality of which his mother's letters seemed to prove more than all his own eloquence.
But all such wishes vanished when Hirell found herself beginning to be regarded as one of the shining lights of her people; when she saw eyes, usually cold and condemnatory or stern and preoccupied, rest upon her with wonder and reverential tenderness, she began joyfully and tremulously to believe in her own saintliness, and to put from her mind all earthly, or, as her ministers would have said, 'carnal' subjects, and Robert and Kent were in the list. She declined his offer of a small hamper of Nytimber Nonsuch apples, and burnt the copies he had sent her for the improvement of her hand. writing, as they were all on the same topic,—'Kent, the garden of England,' or 'Nytimber, a Village in Kent,' traced in Robert's bold hand, in characters large enough to fill up the line. The birthday gloves she had not the heart to refuse, but requested they might always be black, a request which Robert contemptuously disregarded.
And now the picture which had been the richest thing in her childhood's imagination lay before her, glowing warmly, breathing sweetly.
She remenıbered how one day Robert, in a fit of sharp home-sickness, when Mr. Lloyd had been cross, and Mrs. Lloyd severe on the subject of spilt ink, sat with her on the same spot on the broken wall, and heard from her that she likewise had endured indescribable persecutions from the village schoolmistress, on account of her stupidity at learning to turn the heel of her first knitted stocking—and they sat together, she crying, and he plunged in a gloomy reverie, with his hands in his pockets, and his foot on his Latin grammar. Almost as vividly as she sees the real Robert on the hay wagon, she sees the slim young student who sat beside her on the fallen wall, rather thin and pale, and dark under the eyes with rapid growth, and unaccustomed 'worry' of his studies. She remembers how those blue, darkly-circled eyes turned on her suddenly, wistfully, and how Robert, putting off all that assumption of manliness by which most boys so disguise themselves, said simply, as he drew away the half-knitted stocking with one hand, and laid the other on her shoulder
Oh, Hirie, don't you wish we could put this horrid stocking in my Euclid, and pitch 'em over Criba Ban, and tramp off to Kent, and have no more horrid worry all our lives? Don't you, Hirie, darling ?'.
She remembers how she fell into the fascination of his idea, and answered that she should like it very much, and that of course they must expect the journey to be like the Pilgrim's Progress, full of fearful dangers, so that Robert might display a valour unheard of in these days, and both a devotion and faith that should carry them safely past lions and demons and Giant Despair, and the Valleys of Death, and all sorts of things invented by Satan to shake their faith in each other —and at last reach the enchanted fields of Nytimber, where they were to rest as in a prefatory Heaven of unlimited duration,
So the charm of sweet old acquaintance steals over all the summer scenes before her, giving a deeper sunshine to the gold of the buttercups and laburnums, a fresher sweetness to the scent of the lilacs and the hay. So her trouble has brought her to this: the shipwreck of all the richer, dearer hope of her womanhood has still left her in the enjoyment of her childish dream.
Could she be as she was then, and forget all that had happened since ? Here are the fields she has longed for
- more beautiful and rich than even Robert had taught her to imagine them. And then the gentle, wise and generous