As February merged in March, and lighter evenings broke the gloom of the
woodmen's homeward journey, the Hintocks Great and Little began to have ears
for a rumor of the events out of which had grown the timber-dealer's troubles. It
took the form of a wide sprinkling of conjecture, wherein no man knew the exact
truth. Tantalizing phenomena, at once showing and concealing the real
relationship of the persons concerned, caused a diffusion of excited surprise.
Honest people as the woodlanders were, it was hardly to be expected that they
could remain immersed in the study of their trees and gardens amid such
circumstances, or sit with their backs turned like the good burghers of Coventry
at the passage of the beautiful lady.
Rumor, for a wonder, exaggerated little. There were, in fact, in this case as in
thousands, the well-worn incidents, old as the hills, which, with individual
variations, made a mourner of Ariadne, a by-word of Vashti, and a corpse of the
Countess Amy. There were rencounters accidental and contrived, stealthy
correspondence, sudden misgivings on one side, sudden self- reproaches on the
other. The inner state of the twain was one as of confused noise that would not
allow the accents of calmer reason to be heard. Determinations to go in this
direction, and headlong plunges in that; dignified safeguards, undignified
collapses; not a single rash step by deliberate intention, and all against judgment.
It was all that Melbury had expected and feared. It was more, for he had
overlooked the publicity that would be likely to result, as it now had done. What
should he do--appeal to Mrs. Charmond himself, since Grace would not? He
bethought himself of Winterborne, and resolved to consult him, feeling the strong
need of some friend of his own sex to whom he might unburden his mind.
He had entirely lost faith in his own judgment. That judgment on which he had
relied for so many years seemed recently, like a false companion unmasked, to
have disclosed unexpected depths of hypocrisy and speciousness where all had
seemed solidity. He felt almost afraid to form a conjecture on the weather, or the
time, or the fruit-promise, so great was his self-abasement.
It was a rimy evening when he set out to look for Giles. The woods seemed to be
in a cold sweat; beads of perspiration hung from every bare twig; the sky had no
color, and the trees rose before him as haggard, gray phantoms, whose days of
substantiality were passed. Melbury seldom saw Winterborne now, but he
believed him to be occupying a lonely hut just beyond the boundary of Mrs.
Charmond's estate, though still within the circuit of the woodland. The timber-
merchant's thin legs stalked on through the pale, damp scenery, his eyes on the
dead leaves of last year; while every now and then a hasty "Ay?" escaped his
lips in reply to some bitter proposition.