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34. CHAPTER XXXIV.
It was at the beginning of April, a few days after the meeting between Grace and Mrs. Charmond in the wood, that Fitzpiers, just returned from London, was travelling from Sherton-Abbas to Hintock in a hired carriage. In his eye there was a doubtful light, and the lines of his refined face showed a vague disquietude. He appeared now like one of those who impress the beholder as having suffered wrong in being born.
His position was in truth gloomy, and to his appreciative mind it seemed even gloomier than it was. His practice had been slowly dwindling of late, and now threatened to die out altogether, the irrepressible old Dr. Jones capturing patients up to Fitzpiers's very door. Fitzpiers knew only too well the latest and greatest cause of his unpopularity; and yet, so illogical is man, the second branch of his sadness grew out of a remedial measure proposed for the first--a letter from Felice Charmond imploring him not to see her again. To bring about their severance still more effectually, she added, she had decided during his absence upon almost immediate departure for the Continent.
The time was that dull interval in a woodlander's life which coincides with great activity in the life of the woodland itself-- a period following the close of the winter tree-cutting, and preceding the barking season, when the saps are just beginning to heave with the force of hydraulic lifts inside all the trunks of the forest.
Winterborne's contract was completed, and the plantations were deserted. It was dusk; there were no leaves as yet; the nightingales would not begin to sing for a fortnight; and "the Mother of the Months" was in her most attenuated phase--starved and bent to a mere bowed skeleton, which glided along behind the bare twigs in Fitzpiers's company
When he reached home he went straight up to his wife's sitting-room. He found it deserted, and without a fire. He had mentioned no day for his return; nevertheless, he wondered why she was not there waiting to receive him. On descending to the other wing of the house and inquiring of Mrs. Melbury, he learned with much surprise that Grace had gone on a visit to an acquaintance at Shottsford-Forum three days earlier; that tidings had on this morning reached her father of her being very unwell there, in consequence of which he had ridden over to see her.
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