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CHAPTER XIX



THE SHEEP-WASHING -- THE OFFER


BOLDWOOD did eventually call upon her. She was
not at home. "Of course not." he murmured. In con-
templating Bathsheba as a woman, he had forgotten the
accidents of her position as an agriculturist -- that being
as much of a farmer, and as extensive a farmer, as
himself, her probable whereabouts was out-of-doors at
this time of the year. This, and the other oversights
Boldwood was guilty of, were natural to the mood, and
still more natural to the circumstances. The great aids
to idealization in love were present here: occasional
observation of her from a distance, and the absence of
social intercourse with her -- visual familiarity, oral
strangeness. The smaller human elements were kept
out of sight; the pettinesses that enter so largely into
all earthly living and doing were disguised by the
accident of lover and loved-one not being on visiting
terms; and there was hardly awakened a thought in
Boldwood that sorry household realities appertained to
her, or that she, like all others, had moments of
commonplace, when to be least plainly seen was to be
most prettily remembered. Thus a mild sort of
apotheosis took place in his fancy, whilst she still lived
and breathed within his own horizon, a troubled creature
like himself.
It was the end of May when the farmer determined
to be no longer repulsed by trivialities or distracted by
suspense. He had by this time grown used to being in
love; the passion now startled him less even when it
tortured him more, and he felt himself adequate to the
situation. On inquiring for her at her house they had
told him she was at the sheepwashing, and he went off
to seek her there.
The sheep-washing pool was a perfectly circular basin
of brickwork in the meadows, full of the clearest water.
To birds on the wing its glassy surface, reflecting the
light sky, must have been visible for miles around as a
glistening Cyclops' eye in a green face. The grass
about the margin at this season was a sight to remember
long -- in a minor sort of way. Its activity in sucking
the moisture from the rich damp sod. was almost a pro-
cess observable by the eye. The outskirts of this level
water-meadow were diversified by rounded and hollow
pastures, where just now every flower that was not a
buttercup was a daisy. The river slid along noiselessly
as a shade, the swelling reeds and sedge forming a
flexible palisade upon its moist brink. To the north
of the mead were trees, the leaves of which were new,
soft, and moist, not yet having stiffened and darkened
under summer sun and drought, their colour being
yellow beside a green -- green beside a yellow.
From the recesses of this knot of foliage the loud
notes of three cuckoos were resounding through the
still air.
Boldwood went meditating down the slopes with his
eyes on his boots, which the yellow pollen from the
buttercups had bronzed in artistic gradations. A tribu-
tary of the main stream flowed through the basin of the
pool by an inlet and outlet at opposite points of its
diameter. Shepherd Oak, Jan Coggan, Moon, Poor-
grass, Cain Ball, and several others were assembled
here, all dripping wet to the very roots of their hair,
and Bathsheba was standing by in a new riding-habit --
the most elegant she had ever worn -- the reins of her
horse being looped over her arm. Flagons of cider
were rolling about upon the green. The meek sheep
were pushed into the pool by Coggan and Matthew
Moon, who stood by the lower hatch, immersed to their
waists; then Gabriel, who stood on the brink, thrust
them under as they swam along, with an instrument
like a crutch, formed for the purpose, and also for
assisting the exhausted animals when the wool became
saturated and they began to sink. They were let out
against the stream, and through the upper opening, all
impurities flowing away below. Cainy Ball and Joseph,
who performed this latter operation, were if possible
wetter than the rest; they resembled dolphins under a
fountain, every protuberance and angle of their clothes
dribbling forth a small rill.
Boldwood came close and bade her good-morning, with
such constraint that she could not but think he had
stepped across to the washing for its own sake, hoping
not to find her there; more, she fancied his brow severe
and his eye slighting. Bathsheba immediately contrived
to withdraw, and glided along by the river till she was
a stone's throw off. She heard footsteps brushing the
grass, and had a consciousness that love was encircling
her like a perfume. Instead of turning or waiting,
Bathsheba went further among the high sedges, but
Boldwood seemed determined, and pressed on till they
were completely past the bend of the river. Here,
without being seen, they could hear the splashing and
shouts of the washers above.
"Miss Everdene!" said the farmer.
She trembled, turned, and said "Good morning."
His tone was so utterly removed from all she had
expected as a beginning. It was lowness and quiet
accentuated: an emphasis of deep meanings, their form,
at the same time, being scarcely expressed. Silence
has sometimes a remarkable power of showing itself as
the disembodied soul of feeling wandering without its
carcase, and it is then more impressive than speech.
In the same way, to say a little is often to tell more
than to say a great deal. Boldwood told everything in
that word.
As the consciousness expands on learning that what
was fancied to be the rumble of wheels is the reverbera-
tion of thunder, so did Bathsheba's at her intuitive
conviction.
"I feel -- almost too much -- to think." he said, with a
solemn simplicity. "I have come to speak to you with-
out preface. My life is not my own since I have beheld
you clearly, Miss Everdene -- I come to make you an
offer of marriage."
Bathsheba tried to preserve an absolutely neutral
countenance, and all the motion she made was that of
closing lips which had previously been a little parted.
"I am now forty-one years old." he went on. "I may
have been called a confirmed bachelor, and I was a
confirmed bachelor. I had never any views of myself
as a husband in my earlier days, nor have I made any
calculation on the subject since I have been older.
But we all change, and my change, in this matter, came
with seeing you. I have felt lately, more and more,
that my present way of living is bad in every respect.
Beyond all things, I want you as my wife."
"I feel, Mr. Boldwood, that though I respect you
much, I do not feel -- what would justify me to -- in
accepting your offer." she stammered.
This giving back of dignity for dignity seemed to
open the sluices of feeling that Boldwood had as yet
kept closed.
"My life is a burden without you." he exclaimed, in
a low voice. "I want you -- I want you to let me say
I love you again and again!"
Bathsheba answered nothing, and the mare upon
her arm seemed so impressed that instead of cropping
the herbage she looked up.
"I think and hope you care enough for me to listen
to what I have to tell!"
Bathsheba's momentary impulse at hearing this was
to ask why he thought that, till she remembered that,
far from being a conceited assumption on Boldwood's
part, it was but the natural conclusion of serious reflec-
tion based on deceptive premises of her own offering.
"I wish I could say courteous flatteries to you." the
farmer continued in an easier tone, " and put my rugged
feeling into a graceful shape: but I have neither power
nor patience to learn such things. I want you for my
wife -- so wildly that no other feeling can abide in me;
but I should not have spoken out had I not been led
to hope."
The valentine again! O that valentine!" she
said to herself, but not a word to him.
"If you can love me say so, Miss Everdene. If not
-- don't say no!"
"Mr. Boldwood, it is painful to have to say I am
surprised, so that I don't know how to answer you with
propriety and respect -- but am only just able to speak
out my feeling -- I mean my meaning; that I am afraid
I can't marry you, much as I respect you. You are too
dignified for me to suit you, sir."
"But, Miss Everdene!"
"I -- I didn't -- I know I ought never to have dreamt
of sending that valentine -- forgive me, sir -- it was a
wanton thing which no woman with any self-respect
should have done. If you will only pardon my thought-
lessness, I promise never to -- -- "
"No, no, no. Don't say thoughtlessness! Make me
think it was something more -- that it was a sort of
prophetic instinct -- the beginning of a feeling that you
would like me. You torture me to say it was done in
thoughtlessness -- I never thought of it in that light, and
I can't endure it. Ah! I wish I knew how to win you!
but that I can't do -- I can only ask if I have already got
you. If I have not, and it is not true that you have
come unwittingly to me as I have to you, I can say no
more."
"I have not fallen in love with you, Mr. Boldwood --
certainly I must say that." She allowed a very small
smile to creep for the first time over her serious face in
saying this, and the white row of upper teeth, and keenly-
cut lips already noticed, suggested an idea of heartless-
ness, which was immediately contradicted by the pleasant
eyes.
"But you will just think -- in kindness and conde-
scension think -- if you cannot bear with me as a husband!
I fear I am too old for you, but believe me I will take
more care of you than would many a man of your own
age. I will protect and cherish you with all my strength
-- I will indeed! You shall have no cares -- be worried
by no household affairs, and live quite at ease, Miss
Everdene. The dairy superintendence shall be done by
a man -- I can afford it will -- you shall never have so
much as to look out of doors at haymaking time, or to
think of weather in the harvest. I rather cling; to the
chaise, because it is he same my poor father and mother
drove, but if you don't like it I will sell it, and you shall
have a pony-carriage of your own. I cannot say how
far above every other idea and object on earth you seem
to me -- nobody knows -- God only knows -- how much
you are to me!"
Bathsheba's heart was young, and it swelled with
sympathy for the deep-natured man who spoke so
simply.
"Don't say it! don't! I cannot bear you to feel so
much, and me to feel nothing. And I am afraid they
will notice us, Mr. Boldwood. Will you let the matter
rest now? I cannot think collectedly. I did not know
you were going to say this to me. O, I am wicked to
have made you suffer so!" She was frightened as well
as agitated at his vehemence.
"Say then, that you don't absolutely refuse. Do not
quite refuse?"
"I can do nothing. I cannot answer."I may speak to you again on the
subject?"
"Yes."
"I may think of you?"
"Yes, I suppose you may think of me."
"And hope to obtain you?"
"No -- do not hope! Let us go on."
"I will call upon you again to-morrow."
"No -- please not. Give me time."
"Yes -- I will give you any time." he said earnestly and
gratefully. "I am happier now."
"No -- I beg you! Don't be happier if happiness
only comes from my agreeing. Be neutral, Mr. Bold-
wood! I must think."
"I will wait." he said.
And then she turned away. Boldwood dropped his
gaze to the ground, and stood long like a man who did not
know where he was. Realities then returned upon him
like the pain of a wound received in an excitement
which eclipses it, and he, too, then went on.





Far From The Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
Category:
English Literature
 
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