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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 interesting, 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?"
"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 nowhere 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. Oh, 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. However, 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.
"Oh 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 times."
"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 feelings 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 powerless 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 Horeb, 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.
Turn to the next chapter: CHAPTER XXIX PARTICULARS OF A TWILIGHT WALK