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CHAPTER XXVIII



THE HOLLOW AMID THE FERNS


THE hill opposite Bathsheba's dwelling extended, a
mile off, into an uncultivated tract of land, dotted at
this season with tall thickets of brake fern, plump and
diaphanous from recent rapid growth, and radiant in
hues of clear and untainted green.
At eight o'clock this midsummer evening, whilst the
bristling ball of gold in the west still swept the tips of
the ferns with its long, luxuriant rays, a soft brushing-
by of garments might have been heard among them,
and Bathsheba appeared in their midst, their soft,
feathery arms caressing her up to her shoulders. She
paused, turned, went back over the hill and half-way
to her own door, whence she cast a farewell glance upon
the spot she had just left, having resolved not to remain
near the place after all.
She saw a dim spot of artificial red moving round
the shoulder of the rise. It disappeared on the other
side.
She waited one minute -- two minutes -- thought of
Troy's disappointment at her non-fulfilment of a promised
engagement, till she again ran along the field, clambered
over the bank, and followed the original direction. She
was now literally trembling and panting at this her
temerity in such an errant undertaking; her breath
came and went quickly, and her eyes shone with an in-
frequent light. Yet go she must. She reached the
verge of a pit in the middle of the ferns. Troy stood
in the bottom, looking up towards her.
"I heard you rustling through the fern before I saw
you." he said, coming up and giving her his hand to help
her down the slope.
The pit was a saucer-shaped concave, naturally
formed, with a top diameter of about thirty feet, and
shallow enough to allow the sunshine to reach their
heads. Standing in the centre, the sky overhead was
met by a circular horizon of fern: this grew nearly to
the bottom of the slope and then abruptly ceased. The
middle within the belt of verdure was floored with a
thick flossy carpet of moss and grass intermingled, so
yielding that the foot was half-buried within it.
"Now." said Troy, producing the sword, which, as he
raised it into the sunlight, gleamed a sort of greeting,
like a living thing, "first, we have four right and four
left cuts; four right and four left thrusts. Infantry cuts
and guards are more interesting than ours, to my mind;
but they are not so swashing. They have seven cuts
and three thrusts. So much as a preliminary. Well,
next, our cut one is as if you were sowing your corn --
so." Bathsheba saw a sort of rainbow, upside down in
the air, and Troy's arm was still again. "Cut two, as if
you were hedging -- so. Three, as if you were reaping
-- so." Four, as if you were threshing -- in that way.
"Then the same on the left. The thrusts are these: one,
two, three, four, right; one, two, three, four, left." He
repeated them. "Have 'em again?" he said. "One,
two -- -- "
She hurriedly interrupted: "I'd rather not; though
I don't mind your twos and fours; but your ones and
threes are terrible!"
"Very well. I'll let you off the ones and threes.
Next, cuts, points and guards altogether." Troy duly
exhibited them. "Then there's pursuing practice, in
this way." He gave the movements as before. "There,
those are the stereotyped forms. The infantry have
two most diabolical upward cuts, which we are too
humane to use. Like this -- three, four."
"How murderous and bloodthirsty!"
"They are rather deathy. Now I'll be more inter-
esting, and let you see some loose play -- giving all the
cuts and points, infantry and cavalry, quicker than
lightning, and as promiscuously -- with just enough rule
to regulate instinct and yet not to fetter it. You are
my antagonist, with this difference from real warfare,
that I shall miss you every time by one hair's breadth,
or perhaps two. Mind you don't flinch, whatever you
do."
I'll be sure not to!" she said invincibly.
He pointed to about a yard in front of him.
Bathsheba's adventurous spirit was beginning to find
some grains of relish in these highly novel proceedings.
She took up her position as directed, facing Troy.
"Now just to learn whether you have pluck enough
to let me do what I wish, I'll give you a preliminary
test."
He flourished the sword by way of introduction
number two, and the next thing of which she was
conscious was that the point and blade of the sword
were darting with a gleam towards her left side, just
above her hip; then of their reappearance on her right
side, emerging as it were from between her ribs, having
apparently passed through her body. The third item
of consciousness was that of seeing the same sword,
perfectly clean and free from blood held vertically in
Troy's hand (in the position technically called "recover
swords"). All was as quick as electricity.
"Oh!" she cried out in affright, pressing her hand to
her side." Have you run me through? -- no, you have
not! Whatever have you done!"
"I have not touched you." said Troy, quietly. "It
was mere sleight of hand. The sword passed behind
you. Now you are not afraid, are you? Because if
you are l can't perform. I give my word that l will
not only not hurt you, but not once touch you."
"I don't think I am afraid. You are quite sure you
will not hurt me?"
"Quite sure."
"Is the sWord very sharp?"
"O no -- only stand as still as a statue. Now!"
In an instant the atmosphere was transformed to
Bathsheba's eyes. Beams of light caught from the low
sun's rays, above, around, in front of her, well-nigh shut
out earth and heaven -- all emitted in the marvellous
evolutions of Troy's reflecting blade, which seemed
everywhere at once, and yet nowherre specially. These
circling gleams were accompanied by a keen rush that
was almost a whistling -- also springing from all sides of
her at once. In short, she was enclosed in a firmament
of light, and of sharp hisses, resembling a sky-full of
meteors close at hand.
Never since the broadsword became the national
weapon had there been more dexterity shown in its
management than by the hands of Sergeant Troy, and
never had he been in such splendid temper for the
performance as now in the evening sunshine among the
ferns with Bathsheba. It may safely be asserted with
respect to the closeness of his cuts, that had it been
possible for the edge of the sword to leave in the air a
permanent substance wherever it flew past, the space
left untouched would have been almost a mould of
Bathsheba's figure.
Behind the luminous streams of this aurora militaris,
she could see the hue of Troy's sword arm, spread in a
scarlet haze over the space covered by its motions, like
a twanged harpstring, and behind all Troy himself,
mostly facing her; sometimes, to show the rear cuts,
half turned away, his eye nevertheless always keenly
measuring her breadth and outline, and his lips tightly
closed in sustained effort. Next, his movements lapsed
slower, and she could see them individually. The
hissing of the sword had ceased, and he stopped
entirely.
"That outer loose lock of hair wants tidying, he
said, before she had moved or spoken. "Wait: I'll do
it for you."
An arc of silver shone on her right side: the sword
had descended. The lock droped to the ground.
"Bravely borne!" said Troy. "You didn't flinch a
shade's thickness. Wonderful in a woman!"
"It was because I didn't expect it. O, you have
spoilt my hair!"
"Only once more."
"No -- no! I am afraid of you -- indeed I am!" she
cried.
"I won't touch you at all -- not even your hair. I
am only going to kill that caterpillar settling on you.
Now: still!"
It appeared that a caterpillar had come from the
fern and chosen the front of her bodice as his resting
place. She saw the point glisten towards her bosom,
and seemingly enter it. Bathsheba closed her eyes in
the full persuasion that she was killed at last. How-
ever, feeling just as usual, she opened them again.
"There it is, look." said the sargeant, holding his
sword before her eyes.
The caterpillar was spitted upon its point.
"Why, it is magic!" said Bathsheba, amazed.
"O no -- dexterity. I merely gave point to your
bosom where the caterpillar was, and instead of running
you through checked the extension a thousandth of an
inch short of your surface."
"But how could you chop off a curl of my hair with
a sword that has no edge?"
"No edge! This sword will shave like a razor.
Look here."
He touched the palm of his hand with the blade,
and then, lifting it, showed her a thin shaving of scarf-
skin dangling therefrom.
"But you said before beginning that it was blunt and
couldn't cut me!"
"That was to get you to stand still, and so make sure
of your safety. The risk of injuring you through your
moving was too great not to force me to tell you a
fib to escape it."
She shuddered. "I have been within an inch of my
life, and didn't know it!"
"More precisely speaking, you have been within half
an inch of being pared alive two hundred and ninety-five
tinies."
"Cruel, cruel, 'tis of you!"
"You have been perfectly safe, nevertheless. My
sword never errs." And Troy returned the weapon to
the scabbard.
Bathsheba, overcome by a hundred tumultuous feel-
ings resulting from the scene, abstractedly sat down on
a tuft of heather.
"I must leave you now." said Troy, softly. "And I'll
venture to take and keep this in remembrance of you."
She saw him stoop to the grass, pick up the winding
lock which he had severed from her manifold tresses,
twist it round his fingers, unfasten a button in the breast
of his coat, and carefully put it inside. She felt power-
less to withstand or deny him. He was altogether too
much for her, and Bathsheba seemed as one who, facing
a reviving wind, finds it blow so strongly that it stops
the breath.
He drew near and said, "I must be leaving you."
He drew nearer still. A minute later and she saw his
scarlet form disappear amid the ferny thicket, almost in
a flash, like a brand swiftly waved.
That minute's interval had brought the blood beating
into her face, set her stinging as if aflame to the very
hollows of her feet, and enlarged emotion to a compass
which quite swamped thought. It had brought upon
her a stroke resulting, as did that of Moses in Horeh, in
a liquid stream -- here a stream of tears. She felt like
one who has sinned a great sin.
The circumstance had been the gentle dip of Troy's
mouth downwards upon her own. He had kissed her.





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