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THE THREE WOMEN
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
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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 meetingline 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 furzecutter 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 crisisthe 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
The most thoroughgoing ascetic could feel that he had a natural right to
wander on Egdonhe 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 natureneither 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
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 heathturfoccurs 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 landscapefarreaching 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 primiti
The Return of the Native
The Return of the Native
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