BEAUTY IN LONELINESS -- AFTER ALL
But she remained alone now for the greater part of her time, and stayed in the house, or at furthest went into the garden. She shunned every one, even Liddy, and could be brought to make no confidences, and to ask for no sympathy.
As the summer drew on she passed more of her time in the open air, and began to examine into farming matters from sheer necessity, though she never rode out or personally superintended as at former times. One Friday evening in August she walked a little way along the road and entered the village for the first time since the sombre event of the preceding Christmas. None of the old colour had as yet come to her cheek, and its absolute paleness was heightened by the jet black of her gown, till it appeared preternatural. When she reached a little shop at the other end of the place, which stood nearly opposite to the churchyard, Bathsheba heard singing inside the church, and she knew that the singers were practising. She crossed the road, opened the gate, and entered the graveyard, the high sills of the church windows effectually screening her from the eyes of those gathered within. Her stealthy walk was to the nook wherein Troy had worked at planting flowers upon Fanny Robin's grave, and she came to the marble tombstone.
A motion of satisfaction enlivened her face as she read the complete inscription. First came the words of Troy himself: --
WHO DIED OCTOBER 9, 18 --,
Underneath this was now inscribed in new letters: --
IN THE SAME GRAVE LIE THE REMAINS OF THE AFORESAID
WHO DIED DECEMBER 24TH, 18 --,
Whilst she stood and read and meditated the tones of the organ began again in the church, and she went with the same light step round to the porch and listened. The door was closed, and the choir was learning a new hymn. Bathsheba was stirred by emotions which latterly she had assumed to be altogether dead within her. The little attenuated voices of the children brought to her ear in destinct utterance the words they sang without thought or comprehension --
Bathsheba's feeling was always to some extent dependent upon her whim, as is the case with many other women. Something big came into her throat and an uprising to her eyes -- and she thought that she would allow the imminent tears to flow if they wished. They did flow and plenteously, and one fell upon the stone bench beside her. Once that she had begun to cry for she hardly knew what, she could not leave off for crowding thoughts she knew too well. She would have given anything in the world to be, as those children were, unconcerned at the meaning of their words, because too innocent to feel the necessity for any such expression. All the impassioned scenes of her brief expenence seemed to revive with added emotion at that moment, and those scenes which had been without emotion during enactment had emotion then. Yet grief came to her rather as a luxury than as the scourge of former times.
Owing to Bathsheba's face being buried in her hands she did not notice a form which came quietly into the porch, and on seeing her, first moved as if to retreat, then paused and regarded her. Bathsheba did not raise her head for some time, and when she looked round her face was wet, and her eyes drowned and dim. "Mr. Oak," exclaimed she, disconcerted, "how long have you been here?"
"A few minutes, ma'am," said Oak, respectfully.
"Are you going in?" said Bathsheba; and there came from within the church as from a prompter --
"I was," said Gabriel. "I am one of the bass singers, you know. I have sung bass for several months.
"Indeed: I wasn't aware of that. I'll leave you, then."
sang the children.
"Don't let me drive you away, mistress. I think I won't go in to-night."
"Oh no -- you don't drive me away."
Then they stood in a state of some embarrassment Bathsheba trying to wipe her dreadfully drenched and inflamed face without his noticing her. At length Oak said, I've not seen you -- I mean spoken to you -- since ever so long, have I?" But he feared to bring distressing memories back, and interrupted himself with: "Were you going into church?"
"No," she said. I came to see the tombstone privately -- to see if they had cut the inscription as I wished. Mr. Oak, you needn't mind speaking to me, if you wish to, on the matter which is in both our minds at this moment."
"And have they done it as you wished?" said Oak.
"Yes. Come and see it, if you have not already."
So together they went and read the tomb. "Eight months ago!" Gabriel murmured when he saw the date. "It seems like yesterday to me."
"And to me as if it were years ago -- long years, and I had been dead between. And now I am going home, Mr. Oak."
Oak walked after her. "I wanted to name a small matter to you as soon as I could," he said, with hesitation. "Merrily about business, and I think I may just mention it now, if you'll allow me."
"Oh yes, certainly."
It is that I may soon have to give up the management of your farm, Mrs. Troy. The fact is, I am thinking of leaving England -- not yet, you know -- next spring."
"Leaving England!" she said, in surprise and genuine disappointment. "Why, Gabriel, what are you going to do that for?"
"Well, I've thought it best," Oak stammered out. "California is the spot I've had in my mind to try."
"But it is understood everywhere that you are going to take poor Mr. Boldwood's farm on your own account."
"I've had the refusal o' it 'tis true; but nothing is settled yet, and I have reasons for giving up. I shall finish out my year there as manager for the trustees, but no more."
"And what shall I do without you? Oh, Gabriel, I don't think you ought to go away. You've been with me so long -- through bright times and dark times -- such old friends that as we are -- that it seems unkind almost. I had fancied that if you leased the other farm as master, you might still give a helping look across at mine. And now going away!"
"I would have willingly."
"Yet now that I am more helpless than ever you go away!"
"Yes, that's the ill fortune o' it," said Gabriel, in a distressed tone. "And it is because of that very helplessness that I feel bound to go. Good afternoon, ma'am" he concluded, in evident anxiety to get away, and at once went out of the churchyard by a path she could follow on no pretence whatever.
Bathsheba went home, her mind occupied with a new trouble, which being rather harassing than deadly was calculated to do good by diverting her from the chronic gloom of her life. She was set thinking a great deal about Oak and of his wish to shun her; and there occurred to Bathsheba several incidents of her latter intercourse with him, which, trivial when singly viewed amounted together to a perceptible disinclination for her society. It broke upon her at length as a great pain that her last old disciple was about to forsake her and flee. He who had believed in her and argued on her side when all the rest of the world was against her, had at last like the others become weary and neglectful of the old cause, and was leaving her to fight her battles alone.
Three weeks went on, and more evidence of his want of interest in her was forthcoming. She noticed that instead of entering the small parlour or office where the farm accounts were kept, and waiting, or leaving a memorandum as he had hitherto done during her seclusion, Oak never came at all when she was likely to be there, only entering at unseasonable hours when her presence in that part of the house was least to be expected. Whenever he wanted directions he sent a message, or note with neither heading nor signature, to which she was obliged to reply in the same offhand style. Poor Bathsheba began to suffer now from the most torturing sting of all -- a sensation that she was despised.
The autumn wore away gloomily enough amid these melancholy conjectures, and Christmas-day came, completing a year of her legal widowhood, and two years and a quarter of her life alone. On examining her heart it appeared beyond measure strange that the subject of which the season might have been supposed suggestive -- the event in the hall at Boldwood's -- was not agitating her at all; but instead, an agonizing conviction that everybody abjured her -- for what she could not tell -- and that Oak was the ringleader of the recusants. Coming out of church that day she looked round in hope that Oak, whose bass voice she had heard rolling out from the gallery overhead in a most unconcerned manner, might chance to linger in her path in the old way. There he was, as usual, coming down the path behind her. But on seeing Bathsheba turn, he looked aside, and as soon as he got beyond the gate, and there was the barest excuse for a divergence, he made one, and vanished.
The next morning brought the culminating stroke; she had been expecting it long. It was a formal notice by letter from him that he should not renew his engagement with her for the following Lady-day.
Bathsheba actually sat and cried over this letter most bitterly. She was aggrieved and wounded that the possession of hopeless love from Gabriel, which she had grown to regard as her inalienable right for life, should have been withdrawn just at his own pleasure in this way. She was bewildered too by the prospect of having to rely on her own resources again: it seemed to herself that she never could again acquire energy sufficient to go to market, barter, and sell. Since Troy's death Oak had attended all sales and fairs for her, transacting her business at the same time with his own. What should she do now? Her life was becoming a desolation.
So desolate was Bathsheba this evening, that in an absolute hunger for pity and sympathy, and miserable in that she appeared to have outlived the only true friendship she had ever owned, she put on her bonnet and cloak and went down to Oak's house just after sunset, guided on her way by the pale primrose rays of a crescent moon a few days old.
A lively firelight shone from the window, but nobody was visible in the room. She tapped nervously, and then thought it doubtful if it were right for a single woman to call upon a bachelor who lived alone, although he was her manager, and she might be supposed to call on business without any real impropriety. Gabriel opened the door, and the moon shone upon his forehead.
"Mr. Oak," said Bathsheba, faintly.
"Yes; I am Mr. Oak," said Gabriel. "Who have I the honour -- O how stupid of me, not to know you, mistress!"
"I shall not be your mistress much longer, shall I Gabriel?" she said, in pathetic tones.
"Well, no. I suppose -- But come in, ma'am. Oh -- and I'll get a light," Oak replied, with some awkwardness.
"No; not on my account."
"It is so seldom that I get a lady visitor that I'm afraid I haven't proper accommodation. Will you sit down, please? Here's a chair, and there's one, too. I am sorry that my chairs all have wood seats, and are rather hard, but I was thinking of getting some new ones." Oak placed two or three for her.
"They are quite easy enough for me."
So down she sat, and down sat he, the fire dancing in their faces, and upon the old furniture,
that formed Oak's array of household possessions, which sent back a dancing reflection in reply. It was very odd to these two persons, who knew each other passing well, that the mere circumstance of their meeting in a new place and in a new way should make them so awkward and constrained. In the fields, or at her house, there had never been any embarrassment; but now that Oak had become the entertainer their lives seemed to be moved back again to the days when they were strangers.
"You'll think it strange that I have come, but ----"
"Oh no; not at all."
"But I thought -- Gabriel, I have been uneasy in the belief that I have offended you, and that you are going away on that account. It grieved me very much and I couldn't help coming."
"Offended me! As if you could do that, Bathsheba!"
"Haven't I?" she asked, gladly. "But, what are you going away for else?"
"I am not going to emigrate, you know; I wasn't aware that you would wish me not to when I told 'ee or I shouldn't ha' thought of doing it," he said, simply. "I have arranged for Little Weatherbury Farm and shall have it in my own hands at Lady-day. You know I've had a share in it for some time. Still, that wouldn't prevent my attending to your business as before, hadn't it been that things have been said about us."
"What?" said Bathsheba, in surprise. "Things said about you and me! What are they?"
"I cannot tell you."
"It would be wiser if you were to, I think. You have played the part of mentor to me many times, and I don't see why you should fear to do it now."
"It is nothing that you have done, this time. The top and tail o't is this -- that I am sniffing about here, and waiting for poor Boldwood's farm, with a thought of getting you some day."
"Getting me! What does that mean?"
"Marrying of 'ee, in plain British. You asked me to tell, so you mustn't blame me."
Bathsheba did not look quite so alarmed as if a cannon had been discharged by her ear, which was what Oak had expected. "Marrying me! I didn't know it was that you meant," she said, quietly. "Such a thing as that is too absurd -- too soon -- to think of, by far!"
"Yes; of course, it is too absurd. I don't desire any such thing; I should think that was plain enough by this time. Surely, surely you be the last person in the world I think of marrying. It is too absurd, as you say.
"'Too -- s-s-soon' were the words I used."
"I must beg your pardon for correcting you, but you said, 'too absurd,' and so do I."
"I beg your pardon too!" she returned, with tears in her eyes. "'Too soon' was what I said. But it doesn't matter a bit -- not at all -- but I only meant, 'too soon.' Indeed, I didn't, Mr. Oak, and you must believe me!"
Gabriel looked her long in the face, but the firelight being faint there was not much to be seen. "Bathsheba," he said, tenderly and in surprise, and coming closer: "if I only knew one thing -- whether you would allow me to love you and win you, and marry you after all -- if I only knew that!"
"But you never will know," she murmured.
"Because you never ask."
"Oh -- Oh!" said Gabriel, with a low laugh of joyousness. "My own dear ----"
"You ought not to have sent me that harsh letter this morning," she interrupted. "It shows you didn't care a bit about me, and were ready to desert me like all the rest of them! It was very cruel of you, considering I was the first sweetheart that you ever had, and you were the first I ever had; and I shall not forget it!"
"Now, Bathsheba, was ever anybody so provoking he said, laughing." You know it was purely that I, as an unmarried man, carrying on a business for you as a very taking young woman, had a proper hard part to play -- more particular that people knew I had a sort of feeling for 'ee; and I fancied, from the way we were mentioned together, that it might injure your good name. Nobody knows the heat and fret I have been caused by it."
"And was that all?"
"Oh, how glad I am I came!" she exclaimed, thankfully, as she rose from her seat. "I have thought so much more of you since I fancied you did not want even to see me again. But I must be going now, or I shall be missed. Why Gabriel," she said, with a slight laugh, as they went to the door, "it seems exactly as if I had come courting you -- how dreadful!"
"And quite right too," said Oak. "I've danced at your skittish heels, my beautiful Bathsheba, for many a long mile, and many a long day; and it is hard to begrudge me this one visit."
He accompanied her up the hill, explaining to her the details of his forthcoming tenure of the other farm. They spoke very little of their mutual feeling; pretty phrases and warm expressions being probably unnecessary between such tried friends. Theirs was that substantial affection which arises (if any arises at all) when the two who are thrown together begin first by knowing the rougher sides of each other's character, and not the best till further on, the romance growing up in the interstices of a mass of hard prosaic reality. This good-fellowship -- CAMARADERIE -- usually occurring through similarity of pursuits, is unfortunately seldom superadded to love between the sexes, because men and women associate, not in their labours, but in their pleasures merely. Where, however, happy circumstance permits its development, the compounded feeling proves itself to be the only love which is strong as death -- that love which many waters cannot quench, nor the floods drown, beside which the passion usually called by the name is evanescent as steam.
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