eBooks Cube
 
CHAPTER XXIV



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 con-
stancy.
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 cool-
ness 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 munch-
ings 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 sur-
faces, 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 apprehen-
sions 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 enter-
ing 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; regetting, 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 some-
thing tugged at her skirt and pinned it forcibly to the
ground. The instantaneous check nearly threw Bath-
sheba 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 a way.
"We have got hitched together somehow, I think."
"Yes."
"Are you a woman?"
"Yes."
"A lady, I should have said."
"It doesn't matter."
"I am a man."
"Oh!"
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 silense. 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.
"O 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 planta-
tion 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!"
"O, '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?"
"He had."
"What kind of a person is he?"
"O! 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.





Far From The Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
Category:
English Literature
 
Send this page to a friend
Nabou.com: the big site