In May, 1871, Gilford visited Serjeant for the last time, while Hardy waited outside by a horse-cart. The farewells spoken, as the two walked away leaving behind the ailing Serjeant , Hardy turned back to see the face of the spurned suitor at the window of the Vicarage…

 

There is a little-known story of how Thomas Hardy’s love rival, William Serjeant (son of the local curate) lost Emma Gilford to the author. It has now come to public knowledge. The 17th century cottage–an old Vicarage in St Clether in Cornwall–where Gilford parted from Serjeant for the last time, has now come up for sale at £750,000.

The face of the Serjeant gazing mournfully at Hardy and Gilford walking away is said to have haunted the writer for a long time. In his poem, “The Face at the Casement,” Hardy wrote of the sequence of events that took place on that fateful May evening.

Serjeant had been the lover of the local maiden, Gilford, until Hardy arrived in the town from Dorset, in 1870, to carry out a survey in the parish church of St. Juliot. He met Gilford at the church door, and was besotted by her as soon as they exchanged their first glances. The two used to take long walks by the cliffs, and although Hardy had to return to Dorset, he would frequently travel to Cornwall to meet Gilford.

In the meantime, Serjeant conracted tuberculosis, which left him confined to the Vicarage. Oblivious to the swaying affections of Gilford, Serjeant’s health deteriorated, while Hardy seized the opportunity to come closer to her. In May, 1871, Gilford visited Serjeant for the last time, while Hardy waited outside by a horse-cart. The farewells spoken, as the two walked away leaving behind the ailing Serjeant , Hardy turned back to see the face of the spurned suitor at the window of the Vicarage. He put her arm tightly around Gilford’s shoulder and walked on to deal the final blow to the dying lover.

Serjeant died the following year, at the age of 23, and was buried at the St. Clether Church. In 1874, Hardy married Gilford, and in the same year he published Far from the Madding Crowd. But the act of seizing the love of a dying man drew him to lament his “deed of hell” in the following lines:

 

The Face at the Casement

If ever joy leave
An abiding sting of sorrow,
So befell it on the morrow
Of that May eve. . .

The travelled sun dropped
To the north-west, low and lower,
The pony’s trot grew slower,
Until we stopped.

‘This cosy house just by
I must call at for a minute,
A sick man lies within it
Who soon will die.

‘He wished to – marry me,
So I am bound, when I drive near him,
To inquire, if but to cheer him,
How he may be.’

A message was sent in,
And wordlessly we waited,
Till some one came and stated
The bulletin.

And that the sufferer said,
For her call no words could thank her;
As his angel he must rank her
Till life’s spark fled.

Slowly we drove away,
When I turned my head, although not
Called to: why I turned I know not
Even to this day:

And lo, there in my view
Pressed against an upper lattice
Was a white face, gazing at us
As we withdrew.

And well did I divine
It to be the man’s there dying,
Who but lately had been sighing
For her pledged mine.

Then I deigned a deed of hell;
It was done before I knew it;
What devil made me do it
I cannot tell!

Yes, while he gazed above,
I put my arm about her
That he might see, nor doubt her
My plighted Love.

The pale face vanished quick,
As if blasted, from the casement,
And my shame and self-abasement
Began their prick.

And they prick on, ceaselessly,
For that stab in Love’s fierce fashion
Which, unfired by lover’s passion,
Was foreign to me.

She smiled at my caress,
But why came the soft embowment
Of her shoulder at that moment
She did not guess.

Long long years has he lain
In thy garth, O sad Saint Cleather:
What tears there, bared to weather,
Will cleanse that stain!

Love is long-suffering, brave,
Sweet, prompt, precious as a jewel;
But jealousy is cruel,
Cruel as the grave!

 

Coldnoon Bureau

Coldnoon Bureau

Coldnoon (International Journal of Travel Writing & Travelling Cultures) is a refereed, international and interdisciplinary online and print journal that publishes poetry, research papers and nonfiction on the subjects of travel, literary and human geography, psychogeography, and new perspectives on spatiality and travel.

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