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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 constancy.
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 coolness 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 munchings 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 surfaces, 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 crescentshaped 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 apprehensions 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 entering 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 something tugged at her skirt and pinned it forcibly to the ground. The instantaneous check nearly threw Bathsheba 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."
"Are you a woman?"
"A lady, I should have said."
"It doesn't matter."
"I am a man."
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 newborn gallantry.
"Oh 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 plantation 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!"
"Oh, '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?"
"What kind of a person is he?"
"Oh! 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.
Turn to the next chapter: CHAPTER XXV THE NEW ACQUAINTANCE DESCRIBED