eBooks Cube
 
CHAPTER III



A GIRL ON HORSEBACK -- CONVERSATION


THE sluggish day began to break. Even its position
terrestrially is one of the elements of a new interest,
and for no particular reason save that the incident of
the night had occurred there, Oak went again into
the plantation. Lingering and musing here, he heard
the steps of a horse at the foot of the hill, and soon
there appeared in view an auburn pony with a girl on
its back, ascending by the path leading past the cattle-
shed. She was the young woman of the night before.
Gabriel instantly thought of the hat she had mentioned
as having lost in the wind; possibly she had come to
look for it. He hastily scanned the ditch and after
walking about ten yards along it, found the hat among the
leaves. Gabriel took it in his hand and returned to his
hut. Here he ensconced himself, and peeped through
the loophole in the direction of the riders approach.
She came up and looked around -- then on the other
side of the hedge. Gabriel was about to advance and
restore the missing article when an unexpected per-
formance induced him to suspend the action for the
present. The path, after passing the cowshed, bisected
the plantation. It was not a bridle-path -- merely a
pedestrian's track, and the boughs spread horizontally
at a height not greater than seven feet above the ground,
which made it impossible to ride erect beneath them.
The girl, who wore no riding-habit, looked around for
a moment, as if to assure herself that all humanity was
out of view, then dexterously dropped backwards flat
upon the pony's back, her head over its tail, her feet
against its shoulders, and her eyes to the sky. The
rapidity of her glide into this position was that of a
kingfisher -- its noiselessness that of a hawk. Gabriel's
eyes had scarcely been able to follow her. The tall lank
pony seemed used to such doings, and ambled
along unconcerned. Thus she passed under the level boughs.
The performer seemed quite at home anywhere
between a horse's head and its tail, and the necessity
for this abnormal attitude having ceased with the
passage of the plantation, she began to adopt another,
even more obviously convenient than the first. She had
no side-saddle, and it was very apparent that a firm
seat upon the smooth leather beneath her was un-
attainable sideways. Springing to her accustomed
perpendicular like a bowed sapling, and satisfying her,
self that nobody was in sight, she seated herself in the
manner demanded by the saddle, though hardly expected
of the woman, and trotted off in the direction of Tewnell
Mill.
Oak was amused, perhaps a little astonished, and
hanging up the hat in his hut, went again among his
ewes. An hour passed, the girl returned, properly
seated now, with a bag of bran in front of her. On
nearing the cattle-shed she was met by a boy bringing
a milking-pail, who held the reins of the pony whilst
she slid off. The boy led away the horse, leaving the
pail with the young woman.
Soon soft shirts alternating with loud shirts came
in regular succession from within the shed, the obvious
sounds of a person milking a cow. Gabriel took the
lost hat in his hand, and waited beside the path she
would follow in leaving the hill.
She came, the pail in one hand, hanging against her
knee. The left arm was extended as a balance, enough
of it being shown bare to make Oak wish that the event
ha happened in the summer, when the whole would
have been revealed. There was a bright air and manner
about her now, by which she seemed to imply that the
desirability of her existence could not be questioned;
and this rather saucy assumption failed in being offensive,
because a beholder felt it to be, upon the whole, true.
Like exceptional emphasis in the tone of a genius, that
which would have made mediocrity ridiculous was an
addition to recognised power. It was with some
surprise that she saw Gabriel's face rising like the
moon behind the hedge.
The adjustment of the farmer's hazy conceptions of her
charms to the portrait of herself she now presented
him with was less a diminution than a difference. The
starting-point selected by the judgment was. her height
She seemed tall, but the pail was a small one, and the
hedge diminutive; hence, making allowance for error
by comparison with these, she could have been not
above the height to be chosen by women as best. All
features of consequence were severe and regular. It
may have been observed by persons who go about the
shires with eyes for beauty, that in Englishwoman a
classically-formed face is seldom found to be united
with a figure of the same pattern, the highly-finished
features being generally too large for the remainder of
the frame; that a graceful and proportionate figure of
eight heads usually goes off into random facial curves.
Without throwing a Nymphean tissue over a milkmaid,
let it be said that here criticism checked itself as out
of place, and looked at her proportions with a long
consciousness of pleasure. From the contours of her
figure in its upper part, she must have had a beautiful
neck and shoulders; but since her infancy nobody had
ever seen them. Had she been put into a low dress
she would have run and thrust her head into a bush.
Yet she was not a shy girl by any means; it was merely
her instinct to draw the line dividing the seen from the
unseen higher than they do it in towns.
That the girl's thoughts hovered about her face
and form as soon as she caught Oak's eyes conning the
same page was natural, and almost certain. The self-
consciousness shown would have been vanity if a little
more pronounced, dignity if a little less. Rays of male
vision seem to have a tickling effect upon virgin faces
in rural districts; she brushed hers with her hand, as if
Gabriel had been irritating its pink surface by actual
touch, and the free air of her previous movements was
reduced at the same time to a chastened phase of
itself. Yet it was the man who blushed, the maid not
at all.
"I found a hat." said Oak.
"It is mine." said she, and, from a sense of proportion,
kept down to a small smile an inclination to laugh dis-
tinctly: "it flew away last night."
"One o'clock this morning?"
"Well -- it was." She was surprised. "How did you know?"
she said.
"I was here."
"You are Farmer Oak, are you not?"
"That or thereabouts. I'm lately come to this place."
"A large farm?" she inquired, casting her eyes round,
and swinging back her hair, which was black in the
shaded hollows of its mass; but it being now an hour
past sunrise, the rays touched its prominent curves with
a colour of their own.
"No; not large. About a hundred." (In speaking
of farms the word "acres" is omitted by the natives, by
analogy to such old expressions as "a stag of ten.")
"I wanted my hat this morning." she went on.
"I had to ride to Tewnell Mill."
"Yes you had."
"How do you know?"
"I saw you!"
"Where?" she inquired, a misgiving bringing every
muscle of her lineaments and frame to a standstill.
"Here-going through the plantation, and all down
the hill." said Farmer Oak, with an aspect excessively
knowing with regard to some matter in his mind, as he
gazed at a remote point in the direction named, and then
turned back to meet his colloquist's eyes.
A perception caused him to withdraw his own eyes
from hers as suddenly as if he had been caught in a
theft. Recollection of the strange antics she had
indulged in when passing through the trees, was suc-
ceeded in the girl by a nettled palpitation, and that by
a hot face. It was a time to see a woman redden who
was not given to reddening as a rule; not a point in
the milkmaid but was of the deepest rose-colour. From
the Maiden's Blush, through all varieties of the Provence
down to the Crimson Tuscany, the countenance of Oak's
acquaintance quickly graduated; whereupon he, in con-
siderateness, turned away his head.
The sympathetic man still looked the other way, and
wondered when she would recover coolness sufficient to
justify him in facing her again. He heard what seemed
to be the flitting of a dead leaf upon the breeze, and
looked. She had gone away.
With an air between that of Tragedy and Comedy!
Gabriel returned to his work.
Five mornings and evenings passed. The young
woman came regularly to milk the healthy cow or to
attend to the sick one, but never allowed her vision to
stray in the direction of Oak's person. His want of
tact had deeply offended her -- not by seeing what he
could not help, but by letting her know that he had
seen it. For, as without law there is no sin, without
eyes there is no indecorum; and she appeared to feel
that Gabriel's espial had made her an indecorous woman
without her own connivance. It was food for great regret
with him; it was also a contretemps which touched into
life a latent heat he had experienced in that direction.
The acquaintanceship might, however, have ended in
a slow forgetting, but for an incident which occurred at
the end of the same week. One afternoon it began to
freeze, and the frost increased with evening, which drew
on like a stealthy tightening of bonds. It was a time
when in cottages the breath of the sleepers freezes to
the sheets; when round the drawing-room fire of a
thick-walled mansion the sitters' backs are cold, even
whilst their faces are all aglow. Many a small bird went
to bed supperless that night among the bare boughs.
As the milking-hour drew near, Oak kept his usual
watch upon the cowshed. At last he felt cold, and
shaking an extra quantity of bedding round the yearling
ewes he entered the hut and heaped more fuel upon
the stove. The wind came in at the bottom of the door,
and to prevent it Oak laid a sack there and wheeled the
cot round a little more to the south. Then the wind
spouted in at a ventilating hole -- of which there was one
on each side of the hut.
Gabriel had always known that when the fire was
lighted and the door closed one of these must be kept
open -- that chosen being always on the side away from
the wind. Closing the slide to windward, he turned to
open the other; on second -- thoughts the farmer con-
sidered that he would first sit down leaving both
closed for a minute or two, till the temperature of the
hut was a little raised. He sat down.
His head began to ache in an unwonted manner, and,
fancying himself weary by reason of the broken rests of
the preceding nights, Oak decided to get up, open the
slide, and then allow himself to fall asleep. He fell
asleep, however, without having performed the necessary
preliminary.
How long he remained unconscious Gabriel never
knew. During the first stages of his return to percep-
tion peculiar deeds seemed to be in course of enactment.
His dog was howling, his head was aching fearfully --
somebody was pulling him about, hands were loosening
his neckerchief.
On opening his eyes he found that evening had sunk
to dusk in a strange manner of unexpectedness. The
young girl with the remarkably pleasant lips and white
teeth was beside him. More than this -- astonishingly
more -- his head was upon her lap, his face and neck
were disagreeably wet, and her fingers were unbuttoning
his collar.
"Whatever is the matter?" said Oak, vacantly.
She seemed to experience mirth, but of too insignifi-
cant a kind to start enjoyment.
"Nothing now', she answered, "since you are not
dead It is a wonder you were not,suffocated in this
hut of yours."
"Ah, the hut!" murmured Gabriel. "I gave ten
pounds for that hut. But I'll sell it, and sit under
thatched hurdles as they did in old times, curl up
to sleep in a lock of straw! It played me nearly the
same trick the other day!" Gabriel, by way of emphasis,
brought down his fist upon the floor.
"It was not exactly the fault of the hut." she ob-
served in a tone which showed her to be that novelty
among women -- one who finished a thought before
beginning the sentence which was to convey it. "You
should I think, have considered, and not have been so
foolish as to leave the slides closed."
"Yes I suppose I should." said Oak, absently. He
was endeavouring to catch and appreciate the sensation
of being thus with her, his head upon her dress, before
the event passed on into the heap of bygone things.
He wished she knew his impressions; but he would as
soon have thought of carrying an odour in a net as of
attempting to convey the intangibilities of his feeling
in the coarse meshes of language. So he remained
silent.
She made him sit up, and then Oak began wiping
his face and shaking himself like a Samson. "How
can I thank 'ee?" he said at last, gratefully, some of the
natural rusty red having returned to his face. "Oh, never mind that."
said the girl, smiling, and
allowing her smile to hold good for Gabriel's next
remark, whatever that might prove to be.
"How did you find me?"
"I heard your dog howling and scratching at the
door of the hut when I came to the milking (it was so
lucky, Daisy's milking is almost over for the season, and
I shall not come here after this week or the next). The
dog saw me, and jumped over to me, and laid hold of
my skirt. I came across and looked round the hut the
very first thing to see if the slides were closed. My
uncle has a hut like this one, and I have heard him tell
his shepherd not to go to sleep without leaving a slide
open. I opened the door, and there you were like
dead. I threw the milk over you, as there was no
water, forgetting it was warm, and no use."
"I wonder if I should have died?" Gabriel said, in a
low voice, which was rather meant to travel back to
himself than to her.
"O no," the girl replied. She seemed to prefer a
less tragic probability; to have saved a man from death
involved talk that should harmonise with the dignity of
such a deed -- and she shunned it.
"I believe you saved my life, Miss -- -- I don't know
your name. I know your aunt's, but not yours."
"I would just as soon not tell it -- rather not. There
is no reason either why I should, as you probably will
never have much to do with me." "Still, I should like to know."
"You can inquire at my aunt's -- she will tell you."
"My name is Gabriel Oak."
"And mine isn't. You seem fond of yours in
speaking it so decisively, Gabriel Oak."
"You see, it is the only one I shall ever have, and I
must make the most of it."
"I always think mine sounds odd and disagreeable."
"I should think you might soon get a new one."
"Mercy! -- how many opinions you keep about you
concerning other people, Gabriel Oak."
"Well Miss-excuse the words-I thought you
would like them But I can't match you I know in
napping out my mind upon my tongue. I never was
very clever in my inside. But I thank you. Come
give me your hand!"
She hesitated, somewhat disconcerted at Oak's old-
fashioned earnest conclusion. to a dialogue lightly
carried on."Very well." she said, and gave him her
hand, compressing her lips to a demure impassivity.
He held it but an instant, and in his fear of being too
demonstrative, swerved to the opposite extreme, touching
her fingers with the lightness of a small-hearted person.
"I am sorry." he said, the instant after.
"What for?"
"You may have it again if you like; there it is."
She gave him her hand again.
Oak held it longer this time -- indeed, curiously long.
"How soft it is -- being winter time, too -- not chapped
or rough or anything!" he said.
"There -- that's long enough." said she, though with-
out pulling it away "But I suppose you are thinking
you would like to kiss it? You may if you want to."
"I wasn't thinking of any such thing." said Gabriel,
simply; "but I will"
"That you won't!" She snatched back her hand.
Gabriel felt himself guilty of another want of tact.
"Now find out my name." she said, teasingly; and
withdrew.





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