Bathsheba regarded him with round-eyed perplexity. She did not know whether to pity him for disappointed love of her, or to be angry with him for having got over it — his tone being ambiguous.
"I said I wanted you just to mention that it was not true I was going to be married to him," she murmured, with a slight decline in her assurance.
"I can say that to them if you wish, Miss Everdene. And I could likewise give an opinion to 'ee on what you have done."
"I daresay. But I don't want your opinion."
"I suppose not," said Gabriel bitterly, and going on with his turning, his words rising and falling in a regular swell and cadence as he stooped or rose with the winch, which directed them, according to his position, perpendicularly into the earth, or horizontally along the garden, his eyes being fixed on a leaf upon the ground.
With Bathsheba a hastened act was a rash act; but, as does not always happen, time gained was prudence insured. It must be added, however, that time was very seldom gained. At this period the single opinion in the parish on herself and her doings that she valued as sounder than her own was Gabriel Oak's. And the outspoken honesty of his character was such that on any subject, even that of her love for, or marriage with, another man, the same disinterestedness of opinion might be calculated on, and be had for the asking. Thoroughly convinced of the impossibility of his own suit, a high resolve constrained him not to injure that of another. This is a lover's most stoical virtue, as the lack of it is a lover's most venial sin. Knowing he would reply truly she asked the question, painful as she must have known the subject would be. Such is the selfishness of some charming women. Perhaps it was some excuse for her thus torturing honesty to her own advantage, that she had absolutely no other sound judgment within easy reach.
"Well, what is your opinion of my conduct," she said, quietly.
"That it is unworthy of any thoughtful, and meek, and comely woman."
In an instant Bathsheba's face coloured with the angry crimson of a Danby sunset. But she forbore to utter this feeling, and the reticence of her tongue only made the loquacity of her face the more noticeable.
The next thing Gabriel did was to make a mistake.
"Perhaps you don't like the rudeness of my reprimanding you, for I know it is rudeness; but I thought it would do good."
She instantly replied sarcastically —
"On the contrary, my opinion of you is so low, that I see in your abuse the praise of discerning people!"
"I am glad you don't mind it, for I said it honestly and with every serious meaning."
"I see. But, unfortunately, when you try not to speak in jest you are amusing — just as when you wish to avoid seriousness you sometimes say a sensible word."
It was a hard hit, but Bathsheba had unmistakably lost her temper, and on that account Gabriel had never in his life kept his own better. He said nothing. She then broke out —
"I may ask, I suppose, where in particular my unworthiness lies? In my not marrying you, perhaps!"
"Not by any means," said Gabriel quietly. "I have long given up thinking of that matter."
"Or wishing it, I suppose," she said; and it was apparent that she expected an unhesitating denial of this supposition.
Whatever Gabriel felt, he coolly echoed her words —
"Or wishing it either."
A woman may be treated with a bitterness which is sweet to her, and with a rudeness which is not offensive. Bathsheba would have submitted to an indignant chastisement for her levity had Gabriel protested that he was loving her at the same time; the impetuosity of passion unrequited is bearable, even if it stings and anathematizes — there is a triumph in the humiliation, and a tenderness in the strife. This was what she had been expecting, and what she had not got. To be lectured because the lecturer saw her in the cold morning light of open-shuttered disillusion was exasperating. He had not finished, either. He continued in a more agitated voice: —
"My opinion is (since you ask it) that you are greatly to blame for playing pranks upon a man like Mr. Boldwood, merely as a pastime. Leading on a man you don't care for is not a praiseworthy action. And even, Miss Everdene, if you seriously inclined towards him, you might have let him find it out in some way of true loving-kindness, and not by sending him a valentine's letter."
Bathsheba laid down the shears.
"I cannot allow any man to — to criticise my private conduct!" she exclaimed. "Nor will I for a minute. So you'll please leave the farm at the end of the week!"
It may have been a peculiarity — at any rate it was a fact — that when Bathsheba was swayed by an emotion of an earthly sort her lower lip trembled: when by a refined emotion, her upper or heavenward one. Her nether lip quivered now.
"Very well, so I will," said Gabriel calmly. He had been held to her by a beautiful thread which it pained him to spoil by breaking, rather than by a chain he could not break. "I should be even better pleased to go at once," he added.
"Go at once then, in Heaven's name!" said she, her eyes flashing at his, though never meeting them. "Don't let me see your face any more."
"Very well, Miss Everdene — so it shall be."
And he took his shears and went away from her in placid dignity, as Moses left the presence of Pharaoh.