BATHSHEBA TALKS WITH HER OUTRIDER
The arrangement for getting back again to Weatherbury had been that Oak should take the place of Poorgrass 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 unmolested. 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, however, could not be helped; she would not, on any consideration, treat Boldwood harshly, having once already ill-used 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 undiminished, 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 reparation for her fault. Hence her pity for the man who so persistently loved on to his own injury and permanent gloom had betrayed Bathsheba into an injudicious 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, and 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."
"I have none now, or I should have acted differently," she said, gently. "I certainly, at first, had a strange unaccountable feeling that he could not have perished, but I have been able to explain that in several ways since. But though I am fully 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 her 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?"
"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?"
"Oh 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?"
"Oh 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."