DEAR FRIEND, — I do not know your name, but I think these few lines will reach you, which I wrote to thank you for your kindness to me the night I left Weatherbury in a reckless way. I also return the money I owe you, which you will excuse my not keeping as a gift. All has ended well, and I am happy to say I am going to be married to the young man who has courted me for some time — Sergeant Troy, of the 11th Dragoon Guards, now quartered in this town. He would, I know, object to my having received anything except as a loan, being a man of great respectability and high honour — indeed, a nobleman by blood.
I should be much obliged to you if you would keep the contents of this letter a secret for the present, dear friend. We mean to surprise Weatherbury by coming there soon as husband and wife, though I blush to state it to one nearly a stranger. The sergeant grew up in Weatherbury. Thanking you again for your kindness,
I am, your sincere well-wisher, FANNY ROBIN.
"Have you read it, Mr. Boldwood?" said Gabriel; "if not, you had better do so. I know you are interested in Fanny Robin."
Boldwood read the letter and looked grieved.
"Fanny — poor Fanny! the end she is so confident of has not yet come, she should remember — and may never come. I see she gives no address."
"What sort of a man is this Sergeant Troy?" said Gabriel.
"H'm — I'm afraid not one to build much hope upon in such a case as this," the farmer murmured, "though he's a clever fellow, and up to everything. A slight romance attaches to him, too. His mother was a French governess, and it seems that a secret attachment existed between her and the late Lord Severn. She was married to a poor medical man, and soon after an infant was born; and while money was forthcoming all went on well. Unfortunately for her boy, his best friends died; and he got then a situation as second clerk at a lawyer's in Casterbridge. He stayed there for some time, and might have worked himself into a dignified position of some sort had he not indulged in the wild freak of enlisting. I have much doubt if ever little Fanny will surprise us in the way she mentions — very much doubt. A silly girl! — silly girl!"
The door was hurriedly burst open again, and in came running Cainy Ball out of breath, his mouth red and open, like the bell of a penny trumpet, from which he coughed with noisy vigour and great distension of face.
"Now, Cain Ball," said Oak, sternly, "why will you run so fast and lose your breath so? I'm always telling you of it."
"Oh — I — a puff of mee breath — went — the — wrong way, please, Mister Oak, and made me cough — hok — hok!"
"Well — what have you come for?"
"I've run to tell ye," said the junior shepherd, supporting his exhausted youthful frame against the doorpost, "that you must come directly. Two more ewes have twinned — that's what's the matter, Shepherd Oak."
"Oh, that's it," said Oak, jumping up, and dimissing for the present his thoughts on poor Fanny. "You are a good boy to run and tell me, Cain, and you shall smell a large plum pudding some day as a treat. But, before we go, Cainy, bring the tarpot, and we'll mark this lot and have done with 'em."
Oak took from his illimitable pockets a marking iron, dipped it into the pot, and imprinted on the buttocks of the infant sheep the initials of her he delighted to muse on — "B. E.," which signified to all the region round that henceforth the lambs belonged to Farmer Bathsheba Everdene, and to no one else.
"Now, Cainy, shoulder your two, and off. Good morning, Mr. Boldwood." The shepherd lifted the sixteen large legs and four small bodies he had himself brought, and vanished with them in the direction of the lambing field hard by — their frames being now in a sleek and hopeful state, pleasantly contrasting with their death's-door plight of half an hour before.
Boldwood followed him a little way up the field, hesitated, and turned back. He followed him again with a last resolve, annihilating return. On approaching the nook in which the fold was constructed, the farmer drew out his pocket-book, unfastened it, and allowed it to lie open on his hand. A letter was revealed — Bathsheba's.
"I was going to ask you, Oak," he said, with unreal carelessness, "if you know whose writing this is?"
Oak glanced into the book, and replied instantly, with a flushed face, "Miss Everdene's."
Oak had coloured simply at the consciousness of sounding her name. He now felt a strangely distressing qualm from a new thought. The letter could of course be no other than anonymous, or the inquiry would not have been necessary.
Boldwood mistook his confusion: sensitive persons are always ready with their "Is it I?" in preference to objective reasoning.
"The question was perfectly fair," he returned — and there was something incongruous in the serious earnestness with which he applied himself to an argument on a valentine. "You know it is always expected that privy inquiries will be made: that's where the — fun lies." If the word "fun" had been "torture," it could not have been uttered with a more constrained and restless countenance than was Boldwood's then.
Soon parting from Gabriel, the lonely and reserved man returned to his house to breakfast — feeling twinges of shame and regret at having so far exposed his mood by those fevered questions to a stranger. He again placed the letter on the mantelpiece, and sat down to think of the circumstances attending it by the light of Gabriel's information.