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CHAPTER LI



BATHSHEBA TALKS WITH HER OUTRIDER


THE arrangement for getting back again to Weather-
bury had been that Oak should take the place of Poor-
grass in Bathsheba's conveyance and drive her home,
it being discovered late in the afternoon that Joseph
was suffering from his old complaint, a multiplying eye,
and was, therefore, hardly trustworthy as coachman and
protector to a woman. But Oak had found himself so
occupied, and was full of so many cares relative to
those portions of Boldwood's flocks that were not
disposed of, that Bathsheba, without telling Oak or
anybody, resolved to drive home herself, as she had
many times done from Casterbridge Market, and trust
to her good angel for performing the journey un-
molested. But having fallen in with Farmer Boldwood
accidentally (on her part at least) at the refreshment-
tent, she found it impossible to refuse his offer to ride
on horseback beside her as escort. It had grown
twilight before she was aware, but Boldwood assured
her that there was no cause for uneasiness, as the
moon would be up in half-an-hour.
Immediately after the incident in the tent, she had
risen to go -- now absolutely alarmed and really grateful
for her old lover's protection -- though regretting Gabriel's
absence, whose company she would have much preferred,
as being more proper as well as more pleasant, since he
was her own managing-man and servant. This, how-
ever, could not be helped; she would not, on any
consideration, treat Boldwood harshly, having once
already illused him, and the moon having risen, and
the gig being ready, she drove across the hilltop in
the wending way's which led downwards -- to oblivious
obscurity, as it seemed, for the moon and the hill it
flooded with light were in appearance on a level, the
rest of the world lying as a vast shady concave between
them. Boldwood mounted his horse, and followed in
close attendance behind. Thus they descended into
the lowlands, and the sounds of those left on the
hill came like voices from the sky, and the lights were
as those of a camp in heaven. They soon passed the
merry stragglers in the immediate vicinity of the hill,
traversed Kingsbere, and got upon the high road.
The keen instincts of Bathsheba had perceived that
the farmer's staunch devotion to herself was still un-
diminished, and she sympathized deeply. The sight
had quite depressed her this evening; had reminded
her of her folly; she wished anew, as she had wished
many months ago, for some means of making repara-
tion for her fault. Hence her pity for the man who
so persistently loved on to his own injury and per-
manent gloom had betrayed Bathsheba into an injudi-
cious considerateness of manner, which appeared
almost like tenderness, and gave new vigour to the
exquisite dream of a Jacob's seven years service in
poor Boldwood's mind.
He soon found an excuse for advancing from his
position in the rear, and rode close by her side. They
had gone two or three miles in the moonlight, speaking
desultorily across the wheel of her gig concerning the
fair, farming, Oak's usefulness to them both, and other
indifferent subjects, when Boldwood said suddenly
and simply --
"Mrs. Troy, you will marry again some day?"
This point-blank query unmistakably confused her,
it was not till a minute or more had elapsed that
she said, "I have not seriously thought of any such
subject."
"I quite understand that. Yet your late husband
has been dead nearly one year, and -- "
"You forget that his death was never absolutely
proved, and may not have taken place; so that I may
not be really a widow." she said, catching at the straw of
escape that the fact afforded
"Not absolutely proved, perhaps, but it was proved
circumstantially. A man saw him drowning, too. No
reasonable person has any doubt of his death; nor
have you, ma'am, I should imagine.
"O yes I have, or I should have acted differently,"
she said, gently. "From the first, I have had a strange
uaccountable feeling that he could not have perished,
but I have been able to explain that in several ways
since. Even were I half persuaded that I shall see
him no more, I am far from thinking of marriage with
another. I should be very contemptible to indulge in
such a thought."
They were silent now awhile, and having struck into
an unfrequented track across a common, the creaks of
Boldwood's saddle and gig springs were all the
sounds to be heard. Boldwood ended the pause.
"Do you remember when I carried you fainting in
my arms into the King's Arms, in Casterbridge? Every
dog has his day: that was mine."
"I know-I know it all." she said, hurriedly.
"I, for one, shall never cease regretting that events
so fell out as to deny you to me."
"I, too, am very sorry." she said, and then checked
herself. "I mean, you know, I am sorry you thought
I -- "
"I have always this dreary pleasure in thinking over
those past times with you -- that I was something to
you before HE was anything, and that you belonged
ALMOST to me. But, of course, that's nothing. You
never liked me."
"I did; and respected you, too."Do you now?"
"Yes."
"Which?"
"How do you mean which?"
"Do you like me, or do you respect me?"
"I don't know -- at least, I cannot tell you. It is
difficult for a woman to define her feelings in language
which is chiefly made by men to express theirs. My
treatment of you was thoughtless, inexcusable, wicked!
I shall eternally regret it. If there had been anything
I could have done to make amends I would most
gladly have done it -- there was nothing on earth I so
longed to do as to repair the error. But that was not
possible."
"Don't blame yourself -- you were not so far in the
wrong as you suppose. Bathsheba, suppose you had
real complete proof that you are what, in fact, you are
-- a widow -- would you repair the old wrong to me by
marrying me?"
"I cannot say. I shouldn't yet, at any rate."
"But you might at some future time of your life?"
"O yes, I might at some time."
"Well, then, do you know that without further proof
of any kind you may marry again in about six years
from the present -- subject to nobody's objection or
blame?"
"O yes." she said, quickly. "I know all that. But
don't talk of it -- seven or six years -- where may we all
be by that time?"
"They will soon glide by, and it will seem an
astonishingly short time to look back upon when they
are past -- much less than to look forward to now."
"Yes, yes; I have found that in my own experience."
"Now listen once more." Boldwood pleaded. "If I
wait that time, will you marry me? You own that you
owe me amends -- let that be your way of making them."
"But, Mr. Boldwood -- six years -- "
"Do you want to be the wife of any other man?"
"No indeed! I mean, that I don't like to talk
about this matter now. Perhaps it is not proper, and
I ought not to allow it. Let us drop it. My husband
may be living, as I said."
"Of course, I'll drop the subject if you wish. But
propriety has nothing to do with reasons. I am a
middle-aged man, willing to protect you for the
remainder of our lives. On your side, at least, there
is no passion or blamable haste -- on mine, perhaps,
there is. But I can't help seeing that if you choose
from a feeling of pity, and, as you say, a wish to make
amends, to make a bargain with me for a far-ahead
time -- an agreement which will set all things right
and make me happy, late though it may be -- there is
no fault to be found with you as a woman. Hadn't
I the first place beside you? Haven't you been
almost mine once already? Surely you can say to
me as much as this, you will have me back again
should circumstances permit? Now, pray speak! O
Bathsheba, promise -- it is only a little promise -- that
if you marry again, you will marry me!"
His tone was so excited that she almost feared him
at this moment, even whilst she sympathized. It was
a simple physical fear -- the weak of the strong; there
no emotional aversion or inner repugnance. She
said, with some distress in her voice, for she remembered
vividly his outburst on the Yalbury Road, and shrank
from a repetition of his anger: --
"I will never marry another man whilst you wish me
to be your wife, whatever comes -- but to say more -- you
have taken me so by surprise -- "
"But let it stand in these simple words -- that in six
years' time you will be my wife? Unexpected accidents
we'll not mention, because those, of course, must be
given way to. Now, this time I know you will keep
your word."
"That's why I hesitate to give it."
"But do give it! Remember the past, and be kind."
She breathed; and then said mournfully: "O what
shall I do? I don't love you, and I much fear that I
never shall love you as much as a woman ought to love
a husband. If you, sir, know that, and I can yet give
you happiness by a mere promise to marry at the end of
six years, if my husband should not come back, it is a
great honour to me. And if you value such an act of
friendship from a woman who doesn't esteem her-
self as she did, and has little love left, why it
will -- "
"Promise!"
" -- Consider, if I cannot promise soon."
"But soon is perhaps never?"
"O no, it is not! I mean soon. Christmas, we'll
say."
"Christmas!" He said nothing further till he
added: "Well, I'll say no more to you about it till that
time."
Bathsheba was in a very peculiar state of mind,
which showed how entirely the soul is the slave of the
body, the ethereal spirit dependent for its quality upon
the tangible flesh and blood. It is hardly too much to
say that she felt coerced by a force stronger than her
own will, not only into the act of promising upon this
singularly remote and vague matter, but into the emo-
tion of fancying that she ought to promise. When the
weeks intervening between the night of this conversa-
tion and Christmas day began perceptibly to diminish,
her anxiety and perplexity increased.
One day she was led by an accident into an oddly
confidential dialogue with Gabriel about her difficulty
It afforded her a little relief -- of a dull and cheerless
kind. They were auditing accounts, and something
occurred in the course of their labours which led Oak
to say, speaking of Boldwood, " He'll never forget you,
ma'am, never."
Then out came her trouble before she was aware;
and she told him how she had again got into the toils;
what Boldwood had asked her, and how he was ex-
pecting her assent. "The most mournful reason of all
for my agreeing to it." she said sadly, "and the true
reason why I think to do so for good or for evil, is this
-- it is a thing I have not breathed to a living soul as
yet-i believe that if I don't give my word, he'll go out
of his mind."
"Really, do ye?" said Gabriel, gravely.
"I believe this." she continued, with reckless frank-
ness; "and Heaven knows I say it in a spirit the very
reverse of vain, for I am grieved and troubled to my
soul about it-i believe I hold that man's future in my
hand. His career depends entirely upon my treatment
of him. O Gabriel, I tremble at my responsibility, for
it is terrible!"
"Well, I think this much, ma'am, as I told you years
ago." said Oak, "that his life is a total blank whenever
he isn't hoping for 'ee; but I can't suppose-i hope
that nothing so dreadful hangs on to it as you fancy.
His natural manner has always been dark and strange,
you know. But since the case is so sad and oddlike,
why don't ye give the conditional promise? I think I
would."
"But is it right? Some rash acts of my past life
have taught me that a watched woman must have very
much circumspection to retain only a very little credit,
and I do want and long to be discreet in this! And
six years -- why we may all be in our graves by that
BATHSHEBA TALKS WITH OAK
time, even if Mr. Troy does not come back again, which
he may not impossibly do! Such thoughts give a sort
of absurdity to the scheme. Now, isn't it preposterous,
Gabriel? However he came to dream of it, I cannot think.
But is it wrong? You know -- you are older than I."
"Eight years older, ma'am."
"Yes, eight years -- and is it wrong?"
"Perhaps it would be an uncommon agreement for a
man and woman to make: I don't see anything really
wrong about it." said Oak, slowly. "In fact the very
thing that makes it doubtful if you ought to marry en
under any condition, that is, your not caring about him
-- for I may suppose -- -- "
"Yes, you may suppose that love is wanting." she
said shortly. "Love is an utterly bygone, sorry, worn-
out, miserable thing with me -- for him or any one else."
"Well, your want of love seems to me the one thing
that takes away harm from such an agreement with him.
If wild heat had to do wi' it, making ye long to over-
come the awkwardness about your husband's vanishing,
it mid be wrong; but a cold-hearted agreement to oblige
a man seems different, somehow. The real sin, ma'am
in my mind, lies in thinking of ever wedding wi' a man
you don't love honest and true."
"That I'm willing to pay the penalty of." said Bath-
sheba, firmly. "You know, Gabriel, this is what I can-
not get off my conscience -- that I once seriously injured
him in sheer idleness. If I had never played a trick
upon him, he would never have wanted to marry me.
O if I could only pay some heavy damages in money
to him for the harm I did, and so get the sin off my
soul that way!.. Well, there's the debt, which can
only be discharged in one way, and I believe I am
bound to do it if it honestly lies in my power, without
any consideration of my own future at all. When a
rake gambles away his expectations, the fact that it is
an inconvenient debt doesn't make him the less liable.
I've been a rake, and the single point I ask you is, con-
sidering that my own scruples, and the fact that in the
eye of the law my husband is only missing, will keep
any man from marrying me until seven years have
passed -- am I free to entertain such an idea, even
though 'tis a sort of penance -- for it will be that? I
hate the act of marriage under such circumstances, and
the class of women I should seem to belong to by doing
it!"
"It seems to me that all depends upon whe'r you
think, as everybody else do, that your husband is
dead."
"I shall get to, I suppose, because I cannot help
feeling what would have brought him back long before
this time if he had lived."
"Well, then, in religious sense you will be as free
to THINK o' marrying again as any real widow of one
year's standing. But why don't ye ask Mr. Thirdly's
advice on how to treat Mr. Boldwood?"
"No. When I want a broad-minded opinion for
general enlightenment, distinct from special advice, I
never go to a man who deals in the subject pro-
fessionally. So I like the parson's opinion on law, the
lawyer's on doctoring, the doctor's on business, and my
business-man's -- that is, yours -- on morals."
"And on love -- -- "
"My own."
"I'm afraid there's a hitch in that argument." said
Oak, with a grave smile.
She did not reply at once, and then saying, "Good
evening Mr. Oak." went away.
She had spoken frankly, and neither asked nor ex-
pected any reply from Gabriel more satisfactory than
that she had obtained. Yet in the centremost parts of
her complicated heart there existed at this minute a
little pang of disappointment, for a reason she would
not allow herself to recognize. Oak had not once
wished her free that he might marry her himself -- had
not once said, "I could wait for you as well as he."
That was the insect sting. Not that she would have
listened to any such hypothesis. O no -- for wasn't
she saying all the time that such thoughts of the future
were improper, and wasn't Gabriel far too poor a man
to speak sentiment to her? Yet he might have just
hinted about that old love of his, and asked, in a playful
off-hand way, if he might speak of it. It would have
seemed pretty and sweet, if no more; and then she
would have shown how kind and inoffensive a woman's
"No" can sometimes be. But to give such cool advice
-- the very advice she had asked for -- it ruffled our
heroine all the afternoon.





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