offerings of the purest loves are but a self-indulgence, and no generosity at all.
Bathsheba, not being the least in love with him, was eventually able to look calmly at his offer. It was one which many women of her own station in the neighbourhood, and not a few of higher rank, would have been wild to accept and proud to publish. In every point of view, ranging from politic to passionate, it was desirable that she, a lonely girl, should marry, and marry this earnest, well-to-do, and respected man. He was close to her doors: his standing was sufficient: his qualities were even supererogatory. Had she felt, which she did not, any wish whatever for the married state in the abstract, she could not reasonably have rejected him, being a woman who frequently appealed to her understanding for deliverance from her whims. Boldwood as a means to marriage was unexceptionable: she esteemed and liked him, yet she did not want him. It appears that ordinary men take wives because possession is not possible without marriage, and that ordinary women accept husbands because marriage is not possible without possession; with totally differing aims the method is the same on both sides. But the understood incentive on the woman’s part was wanting here. Besides, Bathsheba’s position as absolute mistress of a farm and house was a novel one, and the novelty had not yet begun to wear off.
But a disquiet filled her which was somewhat to her credit, for it would have affected few. Beyond the mentioned reasons with which she combated her objections, she had a strong feeling that, having been the one who began the game, she ought in honesty to accept the consequences. Still the reluctance remained. She said in the same breath that it would be ungenerous not to marry Boldwood, and that she couldn’t do it to save her life.
Bathsheba’s was an impulsive nature under a deliberative aspect. An Elizabeth in brain and a Mary Stuart in spirit, she often performed actions of the greatest temerity with a manner of extreme discretion. Many of her thoughts were perfect syllogisms; unluckily they always remained thoughts. Only a few were irrational assumptions; but, unfortunately, they were the ones which most frequently grew into deeds.
The next day to that of the declaration she found Gabriel Oak at the bottom of her garden, grinding his shears for the sheep-shearing. All the surrounding cottages were more or less scenes of the same operation; the scurr of whetting spread into the sky from all parts of the village as from an armoury previous to a campaign. Peace and war kiss each other at their hours of preparation — sickles, scythes, shears, and pruning-hooks, ranking with swords, bayonets, and lances, in their common necessity for point and edge.
Cainy Ball turned the handle of Gabriel’s grindstone, his head performing a melancholy see-saw up and down with each turn of the wheel. Oak stood somewhat as Eros is represented when in the act of sharpening his arrows: his figure slightly bent, the weight of his body thrown over on the shears, and his head balanced side-ways, with a critical compression of the lips and contraction of the eyelids to crown the attitude.
His mistress came up and looked upon them in silence for a minute or two; then she said —
“Cain, go to the lower mead and catch the bay mare. I’ll turn the winch of the grindstone. I want to speak to you, Gabriel.”
Cain departed, and Bathsheba took the handle. Gabriel had glanced up in intense surprise, quelled its expression, and looked down again. Bathsheba turned the winch, and Gabriel applied the shears.
The peculiar motion involved in turning a wheel has a wonderful tendency to benumb the mind. It is a sort of attenuated variety of Ixion’s punishment, and contributes a dismal chapter to the history of goals. The brain gets muddled, the head grows heavy, and the body’s centre of gravity seems to settle by degrees in a leaden lump somewhere between the eyebrows and the crown. Bathsheba felt the unpleasant symptoms after two or three dozen turns.
“Will you turn, Gabriel, and let me hold the shears?” she said. “My head is in a whirl, and I can’t talk.”
Gabriel turned. Bathsheba then began, with some awkwardness, allowing her thoughts to stray occasionally from her story to attend to the shears, which required a little nicety in sharpening.
“I wanted to ask you if the men made any observations on my going behind the sedge with Mr. Boldwood yesterday?”
“Yes, they did,” said Gabriel. “You don’t hold the shears right, miss — I knew you wouldn’t know the way — hold like this.”
He relinquished the winch, and inclosing her two hands completely in his own (taking each as we sometimes slap a child’s hand in teaching him to write), grasped the shears with her. “Incline the edge so,” he said.
Hands and shears were inclined to suit the words, and held thus for a peculiarly long time by the instructor as he spoke.
“That will do,” exclaimed Bathsheba. “Loose my hands. I won’t have them held! Turn the winch.”
Gabriel freed her hands quietly, retired to his handle, and the grinding went on.
“Did the men think it odd?” she said again.
“Odd was not the idea, miss.”
“What did they say?”
“That Farmer Boldwood’s name and your own were likely to be flung over pulpit together before the year was out.”
“I thought so by the look of them! Why, there’s nothing in it. A more foolish remark was never made, and I want you to contradict it! that’s what I came for.”
Gabriel looked incredulous and sad, but between his moments of incredulity, relieved.
“They must have heard our conversation,” she continued.
“Well, then, Bathsheba!” said Oak, stopping the handle, and gazing into her face with astonishment.
“Miss Everdene, you mean,” she said, with dignity.
“I mean this, that if Mr. Boldwood really spoke of marriage, I bain’t going to tell a story and say he didn’t to please you. I have already tried to please you too much for my own good!”
Bathsheba regarded him with round-eyed perplexity. She did not know whether to pity him for disappointed love of her, or to be angry with him for having got over it — his tone being ambiguous.
“I said I wanted you just to mention that it was not true I was going to be married to him,” she murmured, with a slight decline in her assurance.
“I can say that to them if you wish, Miss Everdene. And I could likewise give an opinion to ‘ee on what you have done.”
“I daresay. But I don’t want your opinion.”
“I suppose not,” said Gabriel bitterly, and going on with his turning, his words rising and falling in a regular swell and cadence as he stooped or rose with the winch, which directed them, according to his position, perpendicularly into the earth, or horizontally along the garden, his eyes being fixed on a leaf upon the ground.
With Bathsheba a hastened act was a rash act; but, as does not always happen, time gained was prudence insured. It must be added, however, that time was very seldom gained. At this period the single opinion in the parish on herself and her doings that she valued as sounder than her own was Gabriel Oak’s. And the outspoken honesty of his character was such that on any subject even that of her love for, or marriage with, another man, the same disinterestedness of opinion might be calculated on, and be had for the asking. Thoroughly convinced of the impossibility of his own suit, a high resolve constrained him not to injure that of another. This is a lover’s most stoical virtue, as the lack of it is a lover’s most venial sin. Knowing he would reply truly she asked the question, painful as she must have known the subject would be. Such is the selfishness of some charming women. Perhaps it was some excuse for her thus torturing honesty to her own advantage, that she had absolutely no other sound judgment within easy reach.
“Well, what is your opinion of my conduct,” she said, quietly.
“That it is unworthy of any thoughtful, and meek, and comely woman.”
In an instant Bathsheba’s face coloured with the angry crimson of a danby sunset. But she forbore to utter this feeling, and the reticence of her tongue only made the loquacity of her face the more noticeable.
The next thing Gabriel did was to make a mistake.
“Perhaps you don’t like the rudeness of my reprimanding you, for I know it is rudeness; but I thought it would do good.”
She instantly replied sarcastically —
“On the contrary, my opinion of you is so low, that I see in your abuse the praise of discerning people!”
“I am glad you don’t mind it, for I said it honestly and with every serious meaning.”
“I see. But, unfortunately, when you try not to speak in jest you are amusing — just as when you wish to avoid seriousness you sometimes say a sensible word.”
It was a hard hit, but Bathsheba had unmistakably lost her temper, and on that account Gabriel had never in his life kept his own better. He said nothing. She then broke out – –
“I may ask, I suppose, where in particular my unworthiness lies? In my not marrying you, perhaps!”
“Not by any means,” said Gabriel quietly. “I have long given up thinking of that matter.”
“Or wishing it, I suppose,” she said; and it was apparent that she expected an unhesitating denial of this supposition.
Whatever Gabriel felt, he coolly echoed her words —
“Or wishing it either.”
A woman may be treated with a bitterness which is sweet to her, and with a rudeness which is not offensive. Bathsheba would have submitted to an indignant chastisement for her levity had Gabriel protested that he was loving her at the same time; the impetuosity of passion unrequited is bearable, even if it stings and anathematizes there is a triumph in the humiliation, and a tenderness in the strife. This was what she had been expecting, and what she had not got. To be lectured because the lecturer saw her in the cold morning light of open-shuttered disillusion was exasperating. He had not finished, either. He continued in a more agitated voice: —
“My opinion is (since you ask it) that you are greatly to blame for playing pranks upon a man like Mr. Boldwood, merely as a pastime. Leading on a man you don’t care for is not a praiseworthy action. And even, Miss Everdene, if you seriously inclined towards him, you might have let him find it out in some way of true loving-kindness, and not by sending him a valentine’s letter.”
Bathsheba laid down the shears.
“I cannot allow any man to — to criticise my private Conduct!” she exclaimed. “Nor will I for a minute. So you’ll please leave the farm at the end of the week!”
It may have been a peculiarity — at any rate it was a fact — that when Bathsheba was swayed by an emotion of an earthly sort her lower lip trembled: when by a refined emotion, her upper or heavenward one. Her nether lip quivered now.
“Very well, so I will,” said Gabriel calmly. He had been held to her by a beautiful thread which it pained him to spoil by breaking, rather than by a chain he could not break. “I should be even better pleased to go at once,” he added.
“Go at once then, in Heaven’s name!” said she, her eyes flashing at his, though never meeting them. “Don’t let me see your face any more.”
“Very well, Miss Everdene — so it shall be.”
And he took his shears and went away from her in placid dignity, as Moses left the presence of Pharaoh.
TROUBLES IN THE FOLD — A MESSAGE
GABRIEL OAK had ceased to feed the Weatherbury flock for about four-and-twenty hours, when on Sunday afternoon the elderly gentlemen Joseph Poorgrass, Matthew Moon, Fray, and half-a-dozen others, came running up to the house of the mistress of the Upper Farm.
“Whatever IS the matter, men?” she said, meeting them at the door just as she was coming out on her way to church, and ceasing in a moment from the close compression of her two red lips, with which she had accompanied the exertion of pulling on a tight glove. “Sixty!” said Joseph Poorgrass.
“Seventy!” said Moon.
“Fifty-nine!” said Susan Tall’s husband.
“– Sheep have broke fence,” said Fray.
“– And got into a field of young clover,” said Tall.
“– Young clover!” said Moon. “– Clover!” said Joseph Poorgrass.
“And they be getting blasted,” said Henery Fray.
“That they be,” said Joseph.
“And will all die as dead as nits, if they bain’t got out and cured!” said Tall.
Joseph’s countenance was drawn into lines and puckers by his concern. Fray’s forehead was wrinkled both perpendicularly and crosswise, after the pattern of a portcullis, expressive of a double despair. Laban Tall’s lips were thin, and his face was rigid. Matthew’s jaws sank, and his eyes turned whichever way the strongest muscle happened to pull them.
“Yes,” said Joseph, “and I was sitting at home, looking for Ephesians, and says I to myself, ”Tis nothing but Corinthians and Thessalonians in this danged Testament,’ when who should come in but Henery there: ‘Joseph,’ he said, ‘the sheep have blasted theirselves —-‘”
With Bathsheba it was a moment when thought was speech and speech exclamation. Moreover, she had hardly recovered her equanimity since the disturbance which she had suffered from Oak’s remarks.
“That’s enough — that’s enough! — oh, you fools!” she cried, throwing the parasol and Prayer-book into the passage, and running out of doors in the direction signified. “To come to me, and not go and get them out directly! Oh, the stupid numskulls!”
Her eyes were at their darkest and brightest now. Bathsheba’s beauty belonged rather to the demonian than to the angelic school, she never looked so well as when she was angry — and particularly when the effect was heightened by a rather dashing velvet dress, carefully put on before a glass.
All the ancient men ran in a jumbled throng after her to the clover-field, Joseph sinking down in the midst when about half-way, like an individual withering in a world which was more and more insupportable. Having once received the stimulus that her presence always gave them they went round among the sheep with a will. The majority of the afflicted animals were lying down, and could not be stirred. These were bodily lifted out, and the others driven into the adjoining field. Here, after the lapse of a few minutes, several more fell down, and lay helpless and livid as the rest.
Bathsheba, with a sad, bursting heart, looked at these primest specimens of her prime flock as they rolled there —
Swoln with wind and the rank mist they drew.
Many of them foamed at the mouth, their breathing being quick and short, whilst the bodies of all were fearfully distended.
“Oh, what can I do, what can I do!” said Bathsheba, helplessly. “Sheep are such unfortunate animals! — there’s always something happening to them! I never knew a flock pass a year without getting into some scrape or other.”
“There’s only one way of saving them,” said Tall.
“What way? Tell me quick!”
“They must be pierced in the side with a thing made on purpose.”
“Can you do it? Can I?”
“No, ma’am. We can’t, nor you neither. It must be done in a particular spot. If ye go to the right or left but an inch you stab the ewe and kill her. Not even a shepherd can do it, as a rule.”
“Then they must die,” she said, in a resigned tone.
“Only one man in the neighbourhood knows the way,” said Joseph, now just come up. “He could cure ’em all if he were here.”
“Who is he? Let’s get him!”
“Shepherd Oak,” said Matthew. “Ah, he’s a clever man in talents!”
“Ah, that he is so!” said Joseph Poorgrass.
“True — he’s the man,” said Laban Tall.
“How dare you name that man in my presence!” she said excitedly. “I told you never to allude to him, nor shall you if you stay with me. Ah!” she added, brightening, “Farmer Boldwood knows!”
“O no, ma’am” said Matthew. “Two of his store ewes got into some vetches t’other day, and were just like these. He sent a man on horseback here post-haste for Gable, and Gable went and saved ’em, Farmer Boldwood hev got the thing they do it with. ‘Tis a holler pipe, with a sharp pricker inside. Isn’t it, Joseph?”
“Ay — a holler pipe,” echoed Joseph. “That’s what ’tis.”
“Ay, sure — that’s the machine,” chimed in Henery Fray, reflectively, with an Oriental indifference to the flight of time.
“Well,” burst out Bathsheba, “don’t stand there with your ‘ayes’ and your ‘sures’ talking at me! Get somebody to cure the sheep instantly!”
All then stalked off in consternation, to get somebody as directed, without any idea of who it was to be. In a minute they had vanished through the gate, and she stood alone with the dying flock.
“Never will I send for him never!” she said firmly.
One of the ewes here contracted its muscles horribly, extended itself, and jumped high into the air. The leap was an astonishing one. The ewe fell heavily, and lay still.
Bathsheba went up to it. The sheep was dead.
“Oh, what shall I do — what shall I do!” she again exclaimed, wringing her hands. “I won’t send for him. No, I won’t!”
The most vigorous expression of a resolution does not always coincide with the greatest vigour of the resolution itself. It is often flung out as a sort of prop to support a decaying conviction which, whilst strong, required no enunciation to prove it so. The “No, I won’t” of Bathsheba meant virtually, “I think I must.”
She followed her assistants through the gate, and lifted her hand to one of them. Laban answered to her signal.
“Where is Oak staying?”
“Across the valley at Nest Cottage!”
“Jump on the bay mare, and ride across, and say he must return instantly — that I say so.”
Tall scrambled off to the field, and in two minutes was on Poll, the bay, bare-backed, and with only a halter by way of rein. He diminished down the hill.
Bathsheba watched. So did all the rest. Tall cantered along the bridle-path through Sixteen Acres, Sheeplands, Middle Field, The Flats, Cappel’s Piece, shrank almost to a point, crossed the bridge, and ascended from the valley through Springmead and Whitepits on the other side. The cottage to which Gabriel had retired before taking his final departure from the locality was visible as a white spot on the opposite hill, backed by blue firs. Bathsheba walked up and down. The men entered the field and endeavoured to ease the anguish of the dumb creatures by rubbing them. Nothing availed.
Bathsheba continued walking. The horse was seen descending the hill, and the wearisome series had to be repeated in reverse order: Whitepits, Springmead, Cappel’s Piece, The Flats, Middle Field, Sheeplands, Sixteen Acres. She hoped Tall had had presence of mind enough to give the mare up to Gabriel, and return himself on foot. The rider neared them. It was Tall.
“Oh, what folly!” said Bathsheba.
Gabriel was not visible anywhere.
“Perhaps he is already gone!” she said.
Tall came into the inclosure, and leapt off, his face tragic as Morton’s after the battle of Shrewsbury.
“Well?” said Bathsheba, unwilling to believe that her verbal LETTRE-DE-CACHET could possibly have miscarried.
“He says BEGGARS MUSTN’T BE CHOOSERS,” replied Laban.
“What!” said the young farmer, opening her eyes and drawing in her breath for an outburst. Joseph Poorgrass retired a few steps behind a hurdle.
“He says he shall not come unless you request en to come civilly and in a proper manner, as becomes any ‘ooman begging a favour.”
“Oh, oh, that’s his answer! Where does he get his airs? Who am I, then, to be treated like that? Shall I beg to a man who has begged to me?”
Another of the flock sprang into the air, and fell dead.
The men looked grave, as if they suppressed opinion.
Bathsheba turned aside, her eyes full of tears. The strait she was in through pride and shrewishness could not be disguised longer: she burst out crying bitterly; they all saw it; and she attempted no further concealment.
“I wouldn’t cry about it, miss,” said William Small-bury, compassionately. “Why not ask him softer like? I’m sure he’d come then. Gable is a true man in that way.”
Bathsheba checked her grief and wiped her eyes. “Oh, it is a wicked cruelty to me — it is — it is!” she murmured. “And he drives me to do what I wouldn’t; yes, he does! — Tall, come indoors.”
After this collapse, not very dignified for the head of an establishment, she went into the house, Tall at her heels. Here she sat down and hastily scribbled a note between the small convulsive sobs of convalescence which follow a fit of crying as a ground-swell follows a storm. The note was none the less polite for being written in a hurry. She held it at a distance, was about to fold it, then added these words at the bottom: —
“DO NOT DESERT ME, GABRIEL!”
She looked a little redder in refolding it, and closed her lips, as if thereby to suspend till too late the action of conscience in examining whether such strategy were justifiable. The note was despatched as the message had been, and Bathsheba waited indoors for the result.
It was an anxious quarter of an hour that intervened between the messenger’s departure and the sound of the horse’s tramp again outside. She could not watch this time, but, leaning over the old bureau at which she had written the letter, closed her eyes, as if to keep out both hope and fear.
The case, however, was a promising one. Gabriel was not angry: he was simply neutral, although her first command had been so haughty. Such imperiousness would have damned a little less beauty; and on the other hand, such beauty would have redeemed a little less imperiousness.
She went out when the horse was heard, and looked up. A mounted figure passed between her and the sky, and drew on towards the field of sheep, the rider turning his face in receding. Gabriel looked at her. It was a moment when a woman’s eyes and tongue tell distinctly opposite tales. Bathsheba looked full of gratitude, and she said: —
“Oh, Gabriel, how could you serve me so unkindly!”
Such a tenderly-shaped reproach for his previous delay was the one speech in the language that he could pardon for not being commendation of his readiness now.
Gabriel murmured a confused reply, and hastened on. She knew from the look which sentence in her note had brought him. Bathsheba followed to the field.
Gabriel was already among the turgid, prostrate forms. He had flung off his coat, rolled up his shirt-sleeves, and taken from his pocket the instrument of salvation. It was a small tube or trochar, with a lance passing down the inside; and Gabriel began to use it with a dexterity that would have graced a hospital surgeon. Passing his hand over the sheep’s left flank, and selecting the proper point, he punctured the skin and rumen with the lance as it stood in the tube; then he suddenly withdrew the lance, retaining the tube in its place. A current of air rushed up the tube, forcible enough to have extinguished a candle held at the orifice.
It has been said that mere ease after torment is delight for a time; and the countenances of these poor creatures expressed it now. Forty-nine operations were successfully performed. Owing to the great hurry necessitated by the far-gone state of some of the flock, Gabriel missed his aim in one case, and in one only — striking wide of the mark, and inflicting a mortal blow at once upon the suffering ewe. Four had died; three recovered without an operation. The total number of sheep which had thus strayed and injured themselves so dangerously was fifty-seven.
When the love-led man had ceased from his labours, Bathsheba came and looked him in the face.
“Gabriel, will you stay on with me?” she said, smiling winningly, and not troubling to bring her lips quite together again at the end, because there was going to be another smile soon.
“I will,” said Gabriel.
And she smiled on him again.
THE GREAT BARN AND THE SHEEP-SHEARERS
MEN thin away to insignificance and oblivion quite as often by not making the most of good spirits when they have them as by lacking good spirits when they are indispensable. Gabriel lately, for the first time since his prostration by misfortune, had been independent in thought and vigorous in action to a marked extent — conditions which, powerless without an opportunity as an opportunity without them is barren, would have given him a sure lift upwards when the favourable conjunction should have occurred. But this incurable loitering beside Bathsheba Everdene stole his time ruinously. The spring tides were going by without floating him off, and the neap might soon come which could not.
It was the first day of June, and the sheep-shearing season culminated, the landscape, even to the leanest pasture, being all health and colour. Every green was young, every pore was open, and every stalk was swollen with racing currents of juice. God was palpably present in the country, and the devil had gone with the world to town. Flossy catkins of the later kinds, fern-sprouts like bishops’ croziers, the square-headed moschatel, the odd cuckoo-pint, — like an apoplectic saint in a niche of malachite, — snow-white ladies’-smocks, the toothwort, approximating to human flesh, the enchanter’s night-shade, and the black- petaled doleful-bells, were among the quainter objects of the vegetable world in and about Weatherbury at this teeming time; and of the animal, the metamorphosed figures of Mr. Jan Coggan, the master-shearer; the second and third shearers, who travelled in the exercise of their calling, and do not require definition by name; Henery Fray the fourth shearer, Susan Tall’s husband the fifth, Joseph Poorgrass the sixth, young Cain Ball as assistant-shearer, and Gabriel Oak as general supervisor. None of these were clothed to any extent worth mentioning, each appearing to have hit in the matter of raiment the decent mean between a high and low caste Hindoo. An angularity of lineament, and a fixity of facial machinery in general, proclaimed that serious work was the order of the day.
They sheared in the great barn, called for the nonce the Shearing-barn, which on ground-plan resembled a church with transepts. It not only emulated the form of the neighbouring church of the parish, but vied with it in antiquity. Whether the barn had ever formed one of a group of conventual buildings nobody seemed to be aware; no trace of such surroundings remained. The vast porches at the sides, lofty enough to admit a waggon laden to its highest with corn in the sheaf, were spanned by heavy-pointed arches of stone, broadly and boldly cut, whose very simplicity was the origin of a grandeur not apparent in erections where more ornament has been attempted. The dusky, filmed, chestnut roof, braced and tied in by huge collars, curves, and diagonals, was far nobler in design, because more wealthy in material, than nine-tenths of those in our modern churches. Along each side wall was a range of striding buttresses, throwing deep shadows on the spaces between them, which were perforated by lancet openings, combining in their proportions the precise requirements both of beauty and ventilation.
One could say about this barn, what could hardly be said of either the church or the castle, akin to it in age and style, that the purpose which had dictated its original erection was the same with that to which it was still applied. Unlike and superior to either of those two typical remnants of mediaevalism, the old barn embodied practices which had suffered no mutilation at the hands of time. Here at least the spirit of the ancient builders was at one with the spirit of the modern beholder. Standing before this abraded pile, the eye regarded its present usage, the mind dwelt upon its past history, with a satisfied sense of functional continuity throughout — a feeling almost of gratitude, and quite of pride, at the permanence of the idea which had heaped it up. The fact that four centuries had neither proved it to be founded on a mistake, inspired any hatred of its purpose, nor given rise to any reaction that had battered it down, invested this simple grey effort of old minds with a repose, if not a grandeur, which a too curious reflection was apt to disturb in its ecclesiastical and military compeers. For once medievalism and modernism had a common stand-point. The lanceolate windows, the time- eaten arch-stones and chamfers, the orientation of the axis, the misty chestnut work of the rafters, referred to no exploded fortifying art or worn-out religious creed. The defence and salvation of the body by daily bread is still a study, a religion, and a desire.
To-day the large side doors were thrown open towards the sun to admit a bountiful light to the immediate spot of the shearers’ operations, which was the wood threshing-floor in the centre, formed of thick oak, black with age and polished by the beating of flails for many generations, till it had grown as slippery and as rich in hue as the state-room floors of an Elizabethan mansion. Here the shearers knelt, the sun slanting in upon their bleached shirts, tanned arms, and the polished shears they flourished, causing these to bristle with a thousand rays strong enough to blind a weak- eyed man. Beneath them a captive sheep lay panting, quickening its pants as misgiving merged in terror, till it quivered like the hot landscape outside.
This picture of to-day in its frame of four hundred years ago did not produce that marked contrast between ancient and modern which is implied by the contrast of date. In comparison with cities, Weatherbury was immutable. The citizen’s THEN is the rustic’s NOW. In London, twenty or thirty-years ago are old times; in Paris ten years, or five; in Weatherbury three or four score years were included in the mere present, and nothing less than a century set a mark on its face or tone. Five decades hardly modified the cut of a gaiter, the embroidery of a smock-frock, by the breadth of a hair. Ten generations failed to alter the turn of a single phrase. In these Wessex nooks the busy outsider’s ancient times are only old; his old times are still new; his present is futurity.
So the barn was natural to the shearers, and the shearers were in harmony with the barn.
The spacious ends of the building, answering ecclesiastically to nave and chancel extremities, were fenced off with hurdles, the sheep being all collected in a crowd within these two enclosures; and in one angle a catching-pen was formed, in which three or four sheep were continuously kept ready for the shearers to seize without loss of time. In the background, mellowed by tawny shade, were the three women, Maryann Money, and Temperance and Soberness Miller, gathering up the fleeces and twisting ropes of wool with a wimble for tying them round. They were indifferently well assisted by the old maltster, who, when the malting season from October to April had passed, made himself useful upon any of the bordering farmsteads.
Behind all was Bathsheba, carefully watching the men to see that there was no cutting or wounding through carelessness, and that the animals were shorn close. Gabriel, who flitted and hovered under her bright eyes like a moth, did not shear continuously, half his time being spent in attending to the others and selecting the sheep for them. At the present moment he was engaged in handing round a mug of mild liquor, supplied from a barrel in the corner, and cut pieces of bread and cheese.
Bathsheba, after throwing a glance here, a caution there, and lecturing one of the younger operators who had allowed his last finished sheep to go off among the flock without re-stamping it with her initials, came again to Gabriel, as he put down the luncheon to drag a frightened ewe to his shear-station, flinging it over upon its back with a dexterous twist of the arm. He lopped off the tresses about its head, and opened up the neck and collar, his mistress quietly looking on.
“She blushes at the insult,” murmured Bathsheba, watching the pink flush which arose and overspread the neck and shoulders of the ewe where they were left bare by the clicking shears — a flush which was enviable, for its delicacy, by many queens of coteries, and would have been creditable, for its promptness, to any woman in the world.
Poor Gabriel’s soul was fed with a luxury of content by having her over him, her eyes critically regarding his skilful shears, which apparently were going to gather up a piece of the flesh at every close, and yet never did so. Like Guildenstern, Oak was happy in that he was not over happy. He had no wish to converse with her: that his bright lady and himself formed one group, exclusively their own, and containing no others in the world, was enough.
So the chatter was all on her side. There is a loquacity that tells nothing, which was Bathsheba’s; and there is a silence which says much: that was Gabriel’s. Full of this dim and temperate bliss, he went on to fling the ewe over upon her other side, covering her head with his knee, gradually running the shears line after line round her dewlap; thence about her flank and back, and finishing over the tail.
“Well done, and done quickly!” said Bathsheba, looking at her watch as the last snip resounded.
“How long, miss?” said Gabriel, wiping his brow.
“Three-and-twenty minutes and a half since you took the first lock from its forehead. It is the first time that I have ever seen one done in less than half an hour.”
The clean, sleek creature arose from its fleece — how perfectly like Aphrodite rising from the foam should have been seen to be realized — looking startled and shy at the loss of its garment, which lay on the floor in one soft cloud, united throughout, the portion visible being the inner surface only, which, never before exposed, was white as snow, and without flaw or blemish of the minutest kind.
“Yes, Mister Oak; here I be!”
Cainy now runs forward with the tar-pot. “B. E.” is newly stamped upon the shorn skin, and away the simple dam leaps, panting, over the board into the shirtless flock outside. Then up comes Maryann; throws the loose locks into the middle of the fleece, rolls it up, and carries it into the background as three-and-a-half pounds of unadulterated warmth for the winter enjoyment of persons unknown and far away, who will, however, never experience the superlative comfort derivable from the wool as it here exists, new and pure — before the unctuousness of its nature whilst in a living state has dried, stiffened, and been washed out — rendering it just now as superior to anything WOOLLEN as cream is superior to milk-and-water.
But heartless circumstance could not leave entire Gabriel’s happiness of this morning. The rams, old ewes, and two- shear ewes had duly undergone their stripping, and the men were proceeding with the shear-lings and hogs, when Oak’s belief that she was going to stand pleasantly by and time him through another performance was painfully interrupted by Farmer Boldwood’s appearance in the extremest corner of the barn. Nobody seemed to have perceived his entry, but there he certainly was. Boldwood always carried with him a social atmosphere of his own, which everybody felt who came near him; and the talk, which Bathsheba’s presence had somewhat suppressed, was now totally suspended.
He crossed over towards Bathsheba, who turned to greet him with a carriage of perfect ease. He spoke to her in low tones, and she instinctively modulated her own to the same pitch, and her voice ultimately even caught the inflection of his. She was far from having a wish to appear mysteriously connected with him; but woman at the impressionable age gravitates to the larger body not only in her choice of words, which is apparent every day, but even in her shades of tone and humour, when the influence is great.
What they conversed about was not audible to Gabriel, who was too independent to get near, though too concerned to disregard. The issue of their dialogue was the taking of her hand by the courteous farmer to help her over the spreading-board into the bright June sunlight outside. Standing beside the sheep already shorn, they went on talking again. Concerning the flock? Apparently not. Gabriel theorized, not without truth, that in quiet discussion of any matter within reach of the speakers’ eyes, these are usually fixed upon it. Bathsheba demurely regarded a contemptible straw lying upon the ground, in a way which suggested less ovine criticism than womanly embarrassment. She became more or less red in the cheek, the blood wavering in uncertain flux and reflux over the sensitive space between ebb and flood. Gabriel sheared on, constrained and sad.
She left Boldwood’s side, and he walked up and down alone for nearly a quarter of an hour. Then she reappeared in her new riding-habit of myrtle-green, which fitted her to the waist as a rind fits its fruit; and young Bob Coggan led on her mare, Boldwood fetching his own horse from the tree under which it had been tied.
Oak’s eyes could not forsake them; and in endeavouring to continue his shearing at the same time that he watched Boldwood’s manner, he snipped the sheep in the groin. The animal plunged; Bathsheba instantly gazed towards it, and saw the blood.
“Oh, Gabriel!” she exclaimed, with severe remonstrance, “you who are so strict with the other men — see what you are doing yourself!”
To an outsider there was not much to complain of in this remark; but to Oak, who knew Bathsheba to be well aware that she herself was the cause of the poor ewe’s wound, because she had wounded the ewe’s shearer in a — still more vital part, it had a sting which the abiding sense of his inferiority to both herself and Boldwood was not calculated to heal. But a manly resolve to recognize boldly that he had no longer a lover’s interest in her, helped him occasionally to conceal a feeling.
“Bottle!” he shouted, in an unmoved voice of routine. Cainy Ball ran up, the wound was anointed, and the shearing continued.
Boldwood gently tossed Bathsheba into the saddle, and before they turned away she again spoke out to Oak with the same dominative and tantalizing graciousness.
“I am going now to see Mr. Boldwood’s Leicesters. Take my place in the barn, Gabriel, and keep the men carefully to their work.”
The horses’ heads were put about, and they trotted away.
Boldwood’s deep attachment was a matter of great interest among all around him; but, after having been pointed out for so many years as the perfect exemplar of thriving bachelorship, his lapse was an anticlimax somewhat resembling that of St. John Long’s death by consumption in the midst of his proofs that it was not a fatal disease.
“That means matrimony,” said Temperance Miller, following them out of sight with her eyes.
“I reckon that’s the size o’t,” said Coggan, working along without looking up.
“Well, better wed over the mixen than over the moor,” said Laban Tall, turning his sheep.
Henery Fray spoke, exhibiting miserable eyes at the same time: “I don’t see why a maid should take a husband when she’s bold enough to fight her own battles, and don’t want a home; for ’tis keeping another woman out. But let it be, for ’tis a pity he and she should trouble two houses.”
As usual with decided characters, Bathsheba invariably provoked the criticism of individuals like Henery Fray. Her emblazoned fault was to be too pronounced in her objections, and not sufficiently overt in her likings. We learn that it is not the rays which bodies absorb, but those which they reject, that give them the colours they are known by; and in the same way people are specialized by their dislikes and antagonisms, whilst their goodwill is looked upon as no attribute at all.
Henery continued in a more complaisant mood: “I once hinted my mind to her on a few things, as nearly as a battered frame dared to do so to such a froward piece. You all know, neighbours, what a man I be, and how I come down with my powerful words when my pride is boiling wi’ scarn?”
“We do, we do, Henery.”
“So I said, ‘Mistress Everdene, there’s places empty, and there’s gifted men willing; but the spite’ — no, not the spite — I didn’t say spite — ‘but the villainy of the contrarikind,’ I said (meaning womankind), ‘keeps ’em out.’ That wasn’t too strong for her, say?”
“Passably well put.”
“Yes; and I would have said it, had death and salvation overtook me for it. Such is my spirit when I have a mind.”
“A true man, and proud as a lucifer.”
“You see the artfulness? Why, ’twas about being baily really; but I didn’t put it so plain that she could understand my meaning, so I could lay it on all the stronger. That was my depth! … However, let her marry an she will. Perhaps ’tis high time. I believe Farmer Boldwood kissed her behind the spear-bed at the sheep- washing t’other day — that I do.”
“What a lie!” said Gabriel.
“Ah, neighbour Oak — how’st know?” said, Henery, mildly.
“Because she told me all that passed,” said Oak, with a pharisaical sense that he was not as other shearers in this matter.
“Ye have a right to believe it,” said Henery, with dudgeon; “a very true right. But I mid see a little distance into things! To be long-headed enough for a baily’s place is a poor mere trifle — yet a trifle more than nothing. However, I look round upon life quite cool. Do you heed me, neighbours? My words, though made as simple as I can, mid be rather deep for some heads.”
“O yes, Henery, we quite heed ye.”
“A strange old piece, goodmen — whirled about from here to yonder, as if I were nothing! A little warped, too. But I have my depths; ha, and even my great depths! I might gird at a certain shepherd, brain to brain. But no — O no!”
“A strange old piece, ye say!” interposed the maltster, in a querulous voice. “At the same time ye be no old man worth naming — no old man at all. Yer teeth bain’t half gone yet; and what’s a old man’s standing if so be his teeth bain’t gone? Weren’t I stale in wedlock afore ye were out of arms? ‘Tis a poor thing to be sixty, when there’s people far past four-score — a boast’weak as water.”
It was the unvaying custom in Weatherbury to sink minor differences when the maltster had to be pacified.
“Weak as-water! yes,” said Jan Coggan. “Malter, we feel ye to be a wonderful veteran man, and nobody can gainsay it.”
“Nobody,” said Joseph Poorgrass. “Ye be a very rare old spectacle, malter, and we all admire ye for that gift.”
“Ay, and as a young man, when my senses were in prosperity, I was likewise liked by a good-few who knowed me,” said the maltster.
“‘Ithout doubt you was — ‘ithout doubt.”
The bent and hoary ‘man was satisfied, and so apparently was Henery Frag. That matters should continue pleasant Maryann spoke, who, what with her brown complexion, and the working wrapper of rusty linsey, had at present the mellow hue of an old sketch in oils — notably some of Nicholas Poussin’s: —
“Do anybody know of a crooked man, or a lame, or any second- hand fellow at all that would do for poor me?” said Maryann. “A perfect one I don’t expect to at my time of life. If I could hear of such a thing twould do me more good than toast and ale.”
Coggan furnished a suitable reply. Oak went on with his shearing, and said not another word. Pestilent moods had come, and teased away his quiet. Bathsheba had shown indications of anointing him above his fellows by installing him as the bailiff that the farm imperatively required. He did not covet the post relatively to the farm: in relation to herself, as beloved by him and unmarried to another, he had coveted it. His readings of her seemed now to be vapoury and indistinct. His lecture to her was, he thought, one of the absurdest mistakes. Far from coquetting with Boldwood, she had trifled with himself in thus feigning that she had trifled with another. He was inwardly convinced that, in accordance with the anticipations of his easy-going and worse-educated comrades, that day would see Boldwood the accepted husband of Miss Everdene. Gabriel at this time of his life had out-grown the instinctive dislike which every Christian boy has for reading the Bible, perusing it now quite frequently, and he inwardly said, “I find more bitter than death the woman whose heart is snares and nets!” This was mere exclamation — the froth of the storm. He adored Bathsheba just the same.
“We workfolk shall have some lordly-junketing to-night,” said Cainy Ball, casting forth his thoughts in a new direction. “This morning I see’em making the great puddens in the milking-pails — lumps of fat as big as yer thumb, Mister Oak! I’ve never seed such splendid large knobs of fat before in the days of my life — they never used to be bigger then a horse-bean. And there was a great black crock upon the brandish with his legs a-sticking out, but I don’t know what was in within.”
“And there’s two bushels of biffins for apple-pies,” said Maryann.
“Well, I hope to do my duty by it all,” said Joseph Poorgrass, in a pleasant, masticating manner of anticipation. “Yes; victuals and drink is a cheerful thing, and gives nerves to the nerveless, if the form of words may be used. ‘Tis the gospel of the body, without which we perish, so to speak it.”
EVENTIDE — A SECOND DECLARATION
FOR the shearing-supper a long table was placed on the grass-plot beside the house, the end of the table being thrust over the sill of the wide parlour window and a foot or two into the room. Miss Everdene sat inside the window, facing down the table. She was thus at the head without mingling with the men.
This evening Bathsheba was unusually excited, her red cheeks and lips contrasting lustrously with the mazy skeins of her shadowy hair. She seemed to expect assistance, and the seat at the bottom of the table was at her request left vacant until after they had begun the meal. She then asked Gabriel to take the place and the duties appertaining to that end, which he did with great readiness.
At this moment Mr. Boldwood came in at the gate, and crossed the green to Bathsheba at the window. He apologized for his lateness: his arrival was evidently by arrangement.
“Gabriel,” said she, “will you move again, please, and let Mr. Boldwood come there?”
Oak moved in silence back to his original seat.
The gentleman-farmer was dressed in cheerful style, in a new coat and white waistcoat, quite contrasting with his usual sober suits of grey. Inwardy, too, he was blithe, and consequently chatty to an exceptional degree. So also was Bathsheba now that he had come, though the uninvited presence of Pennyways, the bailiff who had been dismissed for theft, disturbed her equanimity for a while.
Supper being ended, Coggan began on his own private account, without reference to listeners: —
I’ve lost my love, and I care not,
I’ve lost my love, and I care not; I shall soon have another
That’s better than t’other;
I’ve lost my love, and I care not.
This lyric, when concluded, was received with a silently appreciative gaze at the table, implying that the performance, like a work by those established authors who are independent of notices in the papers, was a well-known delight which required no applause.
“Now, Master Poorgrass, your song!” said Coggan.
“I be all but in liquor, and the gift is wanting in me,” said Joseph, diminishing himself.
“Nonsense; wou’st never be so ungrateful, Joseph — never!” said Coggan, expressing hurt feelings by an inflection of voice. “And mistress is looking hard at ye, as much as to say, ‘Sing at once, Joseph Poorgrass.'”
“Faith, so she is; well, I must suffer it! … Just eye my features, and see if the tell-tale blood overheats me much, neighbours?”
“No, yer blushes be quite reasonable,” said Coggan.
“I always tries to keep my colours from rising when a beauty’s eyes get fixed on me,” said Joseph, differently; “but if so be ’tis willed they do, they must.”
“Now, Joseph, your song, please,” said Bathsheba, from the window.
“Well, really, ma’am,” he replied, in a yielding tone, “I don’t know what to say. It would be a poor plain ballet of my own composure.”
“Hear, hear!” said the supper-party.
Poorgrass, thus assured, trilled forth a flickering yet commendable piece of sentiment, the tune of which consisted of the key-note and another, the latter being the sound chiefly dwelt upon. This was so successful that he rashly plunged into a second in the same breath, after a few false starts: —
I sow’-ed th’-e …..
I sow’-ed …..
I sow’-ed the’-e seeds’ of love’,
I-it was’ all’ i’-in the’-e spring’, I-in A’-pril’, Ma’-ay, a’-nd sun’-ny’ June’, When sma’-all bi’-irds they’ do’ sing.
“Well put out of hand,” said Coggan, at the end of the verse. ‘They do sing’ was a very taking paragraph.”
“Ay; and there was a pretty place at “seeds of love.” and ’twas well heaved out. Though “love” is a nasty high corner when a man’s voice is getting crazed. Next verse, Master Poorgrass.”
But during this rendering young Bob Coggan exhibited one of those anomalies which will afflict little people when other persons are particularly serious: in trying to check his laughter, he pushed down his throat as much of the tablecloth as he could get hold of, when, after continuing hermetically sealed for a short time, his mirth burst out through his nose. Joseph perceived it, and with hectic cheeks of indignation instantly ceased singing. Coggan boxed Bob’s ears immediately.
“Go on, Joseph — go on, and never mind the young scamp,” said Coggan. “‘Tis a very catching ballet. Now then again — the next bar; I’ll help ye to flourish up the shrill notes where yer wind is rather wheezy: —
Oh the wi’-il-lo’-ow tree’ will’ twist’, And the wil’-low’ tre’-ee wi’ill twine’.
But the singer could not be set going again. Bob Coggan was sent home for his ill manners, and tranquility was restored by Jacob Smallbury, who volunteered a ballad as inclusive and interminable as that with which the worthy toper old Silenus amused on a similar occasion the swains Chromis and Mnasylus, and other jolly dogs of his day.
It was still the beaming time of evening, though night was stealthily making itself visible low down upon the ground, the western lines of light taking the earth without alighting upon it to any extent, or illuminating the dead levels at all. The sun had crept round the tree as a last effort before death, and then began to sink, the shearers’ lower parts becoming steeped in embrowning twilight, whilst their heads and shoulders were still enjoying day, touched with a yellow of self-sustained brilliancy that seemed inherent rather than acquired.
The sun went down in an ochreous mist; but they sat, and talked on, and grew as merry as the gods in Homer’s heaven. Bathsheba still remained enthroned inside the window, and occupied herself in knitting, from which she sometimes looked up to view the fading scene outside. The slow twilight expanded and enveloped them completely before the signs of moving were shown.
Gabriel suddenly missed Farmer Boldwood from his place at the bottom of the table. How long he had been gone Oak did not know; but he had apparently withdrawn into the encircling dusk. Whilst he was thinking of this, Liddy brought candles into the back part of the room overlooking the shearers, and their lively new flames shone down the table and over the men, and dispersed among the green shadows behind. Bathsheba’s form, still in its original position, was now again distinct between their eyes and the light, which revealed that Boldwood had gone inside the room, and was sitting near her.
Next came the question of the evening. Would Miss Everdene sing to them the song she always sang so charmingly — “The Banks of Allan Water” — before they went home?
After a moment’s consideration Bathsheba assented, beckoning to Gabriel, who hastened up into the coveted atmosphere.
“Have you brought your flute?” she whispered.
“Play to my singing, then.”
She stood up in the window-opening, facing the men, the candles behind her, Gabriel on her right hand, immediately outside the sash-frame. Boldwood had drawn up on her left, within the room. Her singing was soft and rather tremulous at first, but it soon swelled to a steady clearness. Subsequent events caused one of the verses to be remembered for many months, and even years, by more than one of those who were gathered there: —
For his bride a soldier sought her,
And a winning tongue had he:
On the banks of Allan Water
None was gay as she!
In addition to the dulcet piping of Gabriel’s flute, Boldwood supplied a bass in his customary profound voice, uttering his notes so softly, however, as to abstain entirely from making anything like an ordinary duet of the song; they rather formed a rich unexplored shadow, which threw her tones into relief. The shearers reclined against each other as at suppers in the early ages of the world, and so silent and absorbed were they that her breathing could almost be heard between the bars; and at the end of the ballad, when the last tone loitered on to an inexpressible close, there arose that buzz of pleasure which is the attar of applause.
It is scarcely necessary to state that Gabriel could not avoid noting the farmer’s bearing to-night towards their entertainer. Yet there was nothing exceptional in his actions beyond what appertained to his time of performing them. It was when the rest were all looking away that Boldwood observed her; when they regarded her he turned aside; when they thanked or praised he was silent; when they were inattentive he murmured his thanks. The meaning lay in the difference between actions, none of which had any meaning of itself; and the necessity of being jealous, which lovers are troubled with, did not lead Oak to underestimate these signs.
Bathsheba then wished them good-night, withdrew from the window, and retired to the back part of the room, Boldwood thereupon closing the sash and the shutters, and remaining inside with her. Oak wandered away under the quiet and scented trees. Recovering from the softer impressions produced by Bathsheba’s voice, the shearers rose to leave, Coggan turning to Pennyways as he pushed back the bench to pass out: —
“I like to give praise where praise is due, and the man deserves it — that ‘a do so,” he remarked, looking at the worthy thief, as if he were the masterpiece of some world- renowned artist.
“I’m sure I should never have believed it if we hadn’t proved it, so to allude,” hiccupped Joseph Poorgrass, “that every cup, every one of the best knives and forks, and every empty bottle be in their place as perfect now as at the beginning, and not one stole at all.”
“I’m sure I don’t deserve half the praise you give me,” said the virtuous thief, grimly.
“Well, I’ll say this for Pennyways,” added Coggan, “that whenever he do really make up his mind to do a noble thing in the shape of a good action, as I could see by his face he did to-night afore sitting down, he’s generally able to carry it out. Yes, I’m proud to say, neighbours, that he’s stole nothing at all.”
“Well, ’tis an honest deed, and we thank ye for it, Pennyways,” said Joseph; to which opinion the remainder of the company subscribed unanimously.
At this time of departure, when nothing more was visible of the inside of the parlour than a thin and still chink of light between the shutters, a passionate scene was in course of enactment there.
Miss Everdene and Boldwood were alone. Her cheeks had lost a great deal of their healthful fire from the very seriousness of her position; but her eye was bright with the excitement of a triumph — though it was a triumph which had rather been contemplated than desired.
She was standing behind a low arm-chair, from which she had just risen, and he was kneeling in it — inclining himself over its back towards her, and holding her hand in both his own. His body moved restlessly, and it was with what Keats daintily calls a too happy happiness. This unwonted abstraction by love of all dignity from a man of whom it had ever seemed the chief component, was, in its distressing incongruity, a pain to her which quenched much of the pleasure she derived from the proof that she was idolized.
“I will try to love you,” she was saying, in a trembling voice quite unlike her usual self-confidence. “And if I can believe in any way that I shall make you a good wife I shall indeed be willing to marry you. But, Mr. Boldwood, hesitation on so high a matter is honourable in any woman, and I don’t want to give a solemn promise to-night. I would rather ask you to wait a few weeks till I can see my situation better.
“But you have every reason to believe that THEN —-”
“I have every reason to hope that at the end of the five or six weeks, between this time and harvest, that you say you are going to be away from home, I shall be able to promise to be your wife,” she said, firmly. “But remember this distinctly, I don’t promise yet.”
“It is enough I don’t ask more. I can wait on those dear words. And now, Miss Everdene, good-night!”
“Good-night,” she said, graciously — almost tenderly; and Boldwood withdrew with a serene smile.
Bathsheba knew more of him now; he had entirely bared his heart before her, even until he had almost worn in her eyes the sorry look of a grand bird without the feathers that make it grand. She had been awe-struck at her past temerity, and was struggling to make amends without thinking whether the sin quite deserved the penalty she was schooling herself to pay. To have brought all this about her ears was terrible; but after a while the situation was not without a fearful joy. The facility with which even the most timid woman sometimes acquire a relish for the dreadful when that is amalgamated with a little triumph, is marvellous.
THE SAME NIGHT — THE FIR PLANTATION
AMONG the multifarious duties which Bathsheba had voluntarily imposed upon herself by dispensing with the services of a bailiff, was the particular one of looking round the homestead before going to bed, to see that all was right and safe for the night. Gabriel had almost constantly preceded her in this tour every evening, watching her affairs as carefully as any specially appointed officer of surveillance could have done; but this tender devotion was to a great extent unknown to his mistress, and as much as was known was somewhat thanklessly received. Women are never tired of bewailing man’s fickleness in love, but they only seem to snub his constancy.
As watching is best done invisibly, she usually carried a dark lantern in her hand, and every now and then turned on the light to examine nooks and corners with the coolness of a metropolitan policeman. This coolness may have owed its existence not so much to her fearlessness of expected danger as to her freedom from the suspicion of any; her worst anticipated discovery being that a horse might not be well bedded, the fowls not all in, or a door not closed.
This night the buildings were inspected as usual, and she went round to the farm paddock. Here the only sounds disturbing the stillness were steady munchings of many mouths, and stentorian breathings from all but invisible noses, ending in snores and puffs like the blowing of bellows slowly. Then the munching would recommence, when the lively imagination might assist the eye to discern a group of pink-white nostrils, shaped as caverns, and very clammy and humid on their surfaces, not exactly pleasant to the touch until one got used to them; the mouths beneath having a great partiality for closing upon any loose end of Bathsheba’s apparel which came within reach of their tongues. Above each of these a still keener vision suggested a brown forehead and two staring though not unfriendly eyes, and above all a pair of whitish crescent- shaped horns like two particularly new moons, an occasional stolid “moo!” proclaiming beyond the shade of a doubt that these phenomena were the features and persons of Daisy, Whitefoot, Bonny-lass, Jolly-O, Spot, Twinkle-eye, etc., etc. — the respectable dairy of Devon cows belonging to Bathsheba aforesaid.
Her way back to the house was by a path through a young plantation of tapering firs, which had been planted some years earlier to shelter the premises from the north wind. By reason of the density of the interwoven foliage overhead, it was gloomy there at cloudless noontide, twilight in the evening, dark as midnight at dusk, and black as the ninth plague of Egypt at midnight. To describe the spot is to call it a vast, low, naturally formed hall, the plumy ceiling of which was supported by slender pillars of living wood, the floor being covered with a soft dun carpet of dead spikelets and mildewed cones, with a tuft of grass-blades here and there.
This bit of the path was always the crux of the night’s ramble, though, before starting, her apprehensions of danger were not vivid enough to lead her to take a companion. Slipping along here covertly as Time, Bathsheba fancied she could hear footsteps entering the track at the opposite end. It was certainly a rustle of footsteps. Her own instantly fell as gently as snowflakes. She reassured herself by a remembrance that the path was public, and that the traveller was probably some villager returning home; regretting, at the same time, that the meeting should be about to occur in the darkest point of her route, even though only just outside her own door.
The noise approached, came close, and a figure was apparently on the point of gliding past her when something tugged at her skirt and pinned it forcibly to the ground. The instantaneous check nearly threw Bathsheba off her balance. In recovering she struck against warm clothes and buttons.
“A rum start, upon my soul!” said a masculine voice, a foot or so above her head. “Have I hurt you, mate?”
“No,” said Bathsheba, attempting to shrink away.
“We have got hitched together somehow, I think.”
“Are you a woman?”
“A lady, I should have said.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“I am a man.”
Bathsheba softly tugged again, but to no purpose.
“Is that a dark lantern you have? I fancy so,” said the man. “Yes.”
“If you’ll allow me I’ll open it, and set you free.”
A hand seized the lantern, the door was opened, the rays burst out from their prison, and Bathsheba beheld her position with astonishment.
The man to whom she was hooked was brilliant in brass and scarlet. He was a soldier. His sudden appearance was to darkness what the sound of a trumpet is to silence. Gloom, the genius loci at all times hitherto, was now totally overthrown, less by the lantern-light than by what the lantern lighted. The contrast of this revelation with her anticipations of some sinister figure in sombre garb was so great that it had upon her the effect of a fairy transformation.
It was immediately apparent that the military man’s spur had become entangled in the gimp which decorated the skirt of her dress. He caught a view of her face.
“I’ll unfasten you in one moment, miss,” he said, with new- born gallantry.
“Oh no — I can do it, thank you,” she hastily replied, and stooped for the performance.
The unfastening was not such a trifling affair. The rowel of the spur had so wound itself among the gimp cords in those few moments, that separation was likely to be a matter of time.
He too stooped, and the lantern standing on the ground betwixt them threw the gleam from its open side among the fir-tree needles and the blades of long damp grass with the effect of a large glowworm. It radiated upwards into their faces, and sent over half the plantation gigantic shadows of both man and woman, each dusky shape becoming distorted and mangled upon the tree-trunks till it wasted to nothing.
He looked hard into her eyes when she raised them for a moment; Bathsheba looked down again, for his gaze was too strong to be received point-blank with her own. But she had obliquely noticed that he was young and slim, and that he wore three chevrons upon his sleeve.
Bathsheba pulled again.
“You are a prisoner, miss; it is no use blinking the matter,” said the soldier, drily. “I must cut your dress if you are in such a hurry.”
“Yes — please do!” she exclaimed, helplessly.
“It wouldn’t be necessary if you could wait a moment,” and he unwound a cord from the little wheel. She withdrew her own hand, but, whether by accident or design, he touched it. Bathsheba was vexed; she hardly knew why.
His unravelling went on, but it nevertheless seemed coming to no end. She looked at him again.
“Thank you for the sight of such a beautiful face!” said the young sergeant, without ceremony.
She coloured with embarrassment. “‘Twas un-willingly shown,” she replied, stiffly, and with as much dignity — which was very little — as she could infuse into a position of captivity.
“I like you the better for that incivility, miss,” he said.
“I should have liked — I wish — you had never shown yourself to me by intruding here!” She pulled again, and the gathers of her dress began to give way like liliputian musketry.
“I deserve the chastisement your words give me. But why should such a fair and dutiful girl have such an aversion to her father’s sex?”
“Go on your way, please.”
“What, Beauty, and drag you after me? Do but look; I never saw such a tangle!”
“Oh, ’tis shameful of you; you have been making it worse on purpose to keep me here — you have!”
“Indeed, I don’t think so,” said the sergeant, with a merry twinkle.
“I tell you you have!” she exclaimed, in high temper. “I insist upon undoing it. Now, allow me!”
“Certainly, miss; I am not of steel.” He added a sigh which had as much archness in it as a sigh could possess without losing its nature altogether. “I am thankful for beauty, even when ’tis thrown to me like a bone to a dog. These moments will be over too soon!”
She closed her lips in a determined silence.
Bathsheba was revolving in her mind whether by a bold and desperate rush she could free herself at the risk of leaving her skirt bodily behind her. The thought was too dreadful. The dress — which she had put on to appear stately at the supper — was the head and front of her wardrobe; not another in her stock became her so well. What woman in Bathsheba’s position, not naturally timid, and within call of her retainers, would have bought escape from a dashing soldier at so dear a price?
“All in good time; it will soon be done, I perceive,” said her cool friend.
“This trifling provokes, and — and —-”
“Not too cruel!”
“– Insults me!”
“It is done in order that I may have the pleasure of apologizing to so charming a woman, which I straightway do most humbly, madam,” he said, bowing low.
Bathsheba really knew not what to say.
“I’ve seen a good many women in my time,” continued the young man in a murmur, and more thoughtfully than hitherto, critically regarding her bent head at the same time; “but I’ve never seen a woman so beautiful as you. Take it or leave it — be offended or like it — I don’t care.”
“Who are you, then, who can so well afford to despise opinion?”
“No stranger. Sergeant Troy. I am staying in this place. — There! it is undone at last, you see. Your light fingers were more eager than mine. I wish it had been the knot of knots, which there’s no untying!”
This was worse and worse. She started up, and so did he. How to decently get away from him — that was her difficulty now. She sidled off inch by inch, the lantern in her hand, till she could see the redness of his coat no longer.
“Ah, Beauty; good-bye!” he said.
She made no reply, and, reaching a distance of twenty or thirty yards, turned about, and ran indoors.
Liddy had just retired to rest. In ascending to her own chamber, Bathsheba opened the girl’s door an inch or two, and, panting, said —
“Liddy, is any soldier staying in the village — sergeant somebody — rather gentlemanly for a sergeant, and good looking — a red coat with blue facings?”
“No, miss … No, I say; but really it might be Sergeant Troy home on furlough, though I have not seen him. He was here once in that way when the regiment was at Casterbridge.”
“Yes; that’s the name. Had he a moustache — no whiskers or beard?”
“What kind of a person is he?”
“Oh! miss — I blush to name it — a gay man! But I know him to be very quick and trim, who might have made his thousands, like a squire. Such a clever young dandy as he is! He’s a doctor’s son by name, which is a great deal; and he’s an earl’s son by nature!”
“Which is a great deal more. Fancy! Is it true?”
“Yes. And, he was brought up so well, and sent to Casterbridge Grammar School for years and years. Learnt all languages while he was there; and it was said he got on so far that he could take down Chinese in shorthand; but that I don’t answer for, as it was only reported. However, he wasted his gifted lot, and listed a soldier; but even then he rose to be a sergeant without trying at all. Ah! such a blessing it is to be high-born; nobility of blood will shine out even in the ranks and files. And is he really come home, miss?”
“I believe so. Good-night, Liddy.”
After all, how could a cheerful wearer of skirts be permanently offended with the man? There are occasions when girls like Bathsheba will put up with a great deal of unconventional behaviour. When they want to be praised, which is often, when they want to be mastered, which is sometimes; and when they want no nonsense, which is seldom. Just now the first feeling was in the ascendant with Bathsheba, with a dash of the second. Moreover, by chance or by devilry, the ministrant was antecedently made interesting by being a handsome stranger who had evidently seen better days.
So she could not clearly decide whether it was her opinion that he had insulted her or not.
“Was ever anything so odd!” she at last exclaimed to herself, in her own room. “And was ever anything so meanly done as what I did do to sulk away like that from a man who was only civil and kind!” Clearly she did not think his barefaced praise of her person an insult now.
It was a fatal omission of Boldwood’s that he had never once told her she was beautiful.
THE NEW ACQUAINTANCE DESCRIBED
IDIOSYNCRASY and vicissitude had combined to stamp Sergeant Troy as an exceptional being.
He was a man to whom memories were an incumbrance, and anticipations a superfluity. Simply feeling, considering, and caring for what was before his eyes, he was vulnerable only in the present. His outlook upon time was as a transient flash of the eye now and then: that projection of consciousness into days gone by and to come, which makes the past a synonym for the pathetic and the future a word for circumspection, was foreign to Troy. With him the past was yesterday; the future, to-morrow; never, the day after.
On this account he might, in certain lights, have been regarded as one of the most fortunate of his order. For it may be argued with great plausibility that reminiscence is less an endowment than a disease, and that expectation in its only comfortable form — that of absolute faith — is practically an impossibility; whilst in the form of hope and the secondary compounds, patience, impatience, resolve, curiosity, it is a constant fluctuation between pleasure and pain.
Sergeant Troy, being entirely innocent of the practice of expectation, was never disappointed. To set against this negative gain there may have been some positive losses from a certain narrowing of the higher tastes and sensations which it entailed. But limitation of the capacity is never recognized as a loss by the loser therefrom: in this attribute moral or aesthetic poverty contrasts plausibly with material, since those who suffer do not mind it, whilst those who mind it soon cease to suffer. It is not a denial of anything to have been always without it, and what Troy had never enjoyed he did not miss; but, being fully conscious that what sober people missed he enjoyed, his capacity, though really less, seemed greater than theirs.
He was moderately truthful towards men, but to women lied like a Cretan — a system of ethics above all others calculated to win popularity at the first flush of admission into lively society; and the possibility of the favour gained being transitory had reference only to the future.
He never passed the line which divides the spruce vices from the ugly; and hence, though his morals had hardly been applauded, disapproval of them had frequently been tempered with a smile. This treatment had led to his becoming a sort of regrater of other men’s gallantries, to his own aggrandizement as a Corinthian, rather than to the moral profit of his hearers.
His reason and his propensities had seldom any reciprocating influence, having separated by mutual consent long ago: thence it sometimes happened that, while his intentions were as honourable as could be wished, any particular deed formed a dark background which threw them into fine relief. The sergeant’s vicious phases being the offspring of impulse, and his virtuous phases of cool meditation, the latter had a modest tendency to be oftener heard of than seen.
Troy was full of activity, but his activities were less of a locomotive than a vegetative nature; and, never being based upon any original choice of foundation or direction, they were exercised on whatever object chance might place in their way. Hence, whilst he sometimes reached the brilliant in speech because that was spontaneous, he fell below the commonplace in action, from inability to guide incipient effort. He had a quick comprehension and considerable force of character; but, being without the power to combine them, the comprehension became engaged with trivialities whilst waiting for the will to direct it, and the force wasted itself in useless grooves through unheeding the comprehension.
He was a fairly well-educated man for one of middle class — exceptionally well educated for a common soldier. He spoke fluently and unceasingly. He could in this way be one thing and seem another: for instance, he could speak of love and think of dinner; call on the husband to look at the wife; be eager to pay and intend to owe.
The wondrous power of flattery in PASSADOS at woman is a perception so universal as to be remarked upon by many people almost as automatically as they repeat a proverb, or say that they are Christians and the like, without thinking much of the enormous corollaries which spring from the proposition. Still less is it acted upon for the good of the complemental being alluded to. With the majority such an opinion is shelved with all those trite aphorisms which require some catastrophe to bring their tremendous meanings thoroughly home. When expressed with some amount of reflectiveness it seems co-ordinate with a belief that this flattery must be reasonable to be effective. It is to the credit of men that few attempt to settle the question by experiment, and it is for their happiness, perhaps, that accident has never settled it for them. Nevertheless, that a male dissembler who by deluging her with untenable fictions charms the female wisely, may acquire powers reaching to the extremity of perdition, is a truth taught to many by unsought and wringing occurrences. And some profess to have attained to the same knowledge by experiment as aforesaid, and jauntily continue their indulgence in such experiments with terrible effect. Sergeant Troy was one.
He had been known to observe casually that in dealing with womankind the only alternative to flattery was cursing and swearing. There was no third method. “Treat them fairly, and you are a lost man.” he would say.
This person’s public appearance in Weatherbury promptly followed his arrival there. A week or two after the shearing, Bathsheba, feeling a nameless relief of spirits on account of Boldwood’s absence, approached her hayfields and looked over the hedge towards the haymakers. They consisted in about equal proportions of gnarled and flexuous forms, the former being the men, the latter the women, who wore tilt bonnets covered with nankeen, which hung in a curtain upon their shoulders. Coggan and Mark Clark were mowing in a less forward meadow, Clark humming a tune to the strokes of his scythe, to which Jan made no attempt to keep time with his. In the first mead they were already loading hay, the women raking it into cocks and windrows, and the men tossing it upon the waggon.
From behind the waggon a bright scarlet spot emerged, and went on loading unconcernedly with the rest. It was the gallant sergeant, who had come haymaking for pleasure; and nobody could deny that he was doing the mistress of the farm real knight-service by this voluntary contribution of his labour at a busy time.
As soon as she had entered the field Troy saw her, and sticking his pitchfork into the ground and picking up his crop or cane, he came forward. Bathsheba blushed with half- angry embarrassment, and adjusted her eyes as well as her feet to the direct line of her path.
SCENE ON THE VERGE OF THE HAY-MEAD
“AH, Miss Everdene!” said the sergeant, touching his diminutive cap. “Little did I think it was you I was speaking to the other night. And yet, if I had reflected, the “Queen of the Corn-market” (truth is truth at any hour of the day or night, and I heard you so named in Casterbridge yesterday), the “Queen of the Corn-market.” I say, could be no other woman. I step across now to beg your forgiveness a thousand times for having been led by my feelings to express myself too strongly for a stranger. To be sure I am no stranger to the place — I am Sergeant Troy, as I told you, and I have assisted your uncle in these fields no end of times when I was a lad. I have been doing the same for you today.”
“I suppose I must thank you for that, Sergeant Troy,” said the Queen of the Corn-market, in an indifferently grateful tone.
The sergeant looked hurt and sad. “Indeed you must not, Miss Everdene,” he said. “Why could you think such a thing necessary?”
“I am glad it is not.”
“Why? if I may ask without offence.”
“Because I don’t much want to thank you for anything.”
“I am afraid I have made a hole with my tongue that my heart will never mend. O these intolerable times: that ill-luck should follow a man for honestly telling a woman she is beautiful! ‘Twas the most I said — you must own that; and the least I could say — that I own myself.”
“There is some talk I could do without more easily than money.”
“Indeed. That remark is a sort of digression.”
“No. It means that I would rather have your room than your company.”
“And I would rather have curses from you than kisses from any other woman; so I’ll stay here.”
Bathsheba was absolutely speechless. And yet she could not help feeling that the assistance he was rendering forbade a harsh repulse.
“Well,” continued Troy, “I suppose there is a praise which is rudeness, and that may be mine. At the same time there is a treatment which is injustice, and that may be yours. Because a plain blunt man, who has never been taught concealment, speaks out his mind without exactly intending it, he’s to be snapped off like the son of a sinner.”
“Indeed there’s no such case between us,” she said, turning away. “I don’t allow strangers to be bold and impudent — even in praise of me.”
“Ah — it is not the fact but the method which offends you,” he said, carelessly. “But I have the sad satisfaction of knowing that my words, whether pleasing or offensive, are unmistakably true. Would you have had me look at you, and tell my acquaintance that you are quite a common-place woman, to save you the embarrassment of being stared at if they come near you? Not I. I couldn’t tell any such ridiculous lie about a beauty to encourage a single woman in England in too excessive a modesty.”
“It is all pretence — what you are saying!” exclaimed Bathsheba, laughing in spite of herself at the sly method. “You have a rare invention, Sergeant Troy. Why couldn’t you have passed by me that night, and said nothing? — that was all I meant to reproach you for.”
“Because I wasn’t going to. Half the pleasure of a feeling lies in being able to express it on the spur of the moment, and I let out mine. It would have been just the same if you had been the reverse person — ugly and old — I should have exclaimed about it in the same way.”
“How long is it since you have been so afflicted with strong feeling, then?”
“Oh, ever since I was big enough to know loveliness from deformity.”
“‘Tis to be hoped your sense of the difference you speak of doesn’t stop at faces, but extends to morals as well.”
“I won’t speak of morals or religion — my own or anybody else’s. Though perhaps I should have been a very good Christian if you pretty women hadn’t made me an idolater.”
Bathsheba moved on to hide the irrepressible dimplings of merriment. Troy followed, whirling his crop.
“But — Miss Everdene — you do forgive me?”
“You say such things.”
“I said you were beautiful, and I’ll say so still; for, by — so you are! The most beautiful ever I saw, or may I fall dead this instant! Why, upon my —-”
“Don’t — don’t! I won’t listen to you — you are so profane!” she said, in a restless state between distress at hearing him and a PENCHANT to hear more.
“I again say you are a most fascinating woman. There’s nothing remarkable in my saying so, is there? I’m sure the fact is evident enough. Miss Everdene, my opinion may be too forcibly let out to please you, and, for the matter of that, too insignificant to convince you, but surely it is honest, and why can’t it be excused?”
“Because it — it isn’t a correct one,” she femininely murmured.
“Oh, fie — fie! Am I any worse for breaking the third of that Terrible Ten than you for breaking the ninth?”
“Well, it doesn’t seem QUITE true to me that I am fascinating,” she replied evasively.
“Not so to you: then I say with all respect that, if so, it