SCENE ON THE VERGE OF THE HAY-MEAD
"Ah, Miss Everdene!" said the sergeant, touching his diminutive cap. "Little did I think it was you I was speaking to the other night. And yet, if I had reflected, the 'Queen of the Corn-market' (truth is truth at any hour of the day or night, and I heard you so named in Casterbridge yesterday), the 'Queen of the Corn-market.' I say, could be no other woman. I step across now to beg your forgiveness a thousand times for having been led by my feelings to express myself too strongly for a stranger. To be sure I am no stranger to the place — I am Sergeant Troy, as I told you, and I have assisted your uncle in these fields no end of times when I was a lad. I have been doing the same for you to-day."
"I suppose I must thank you for that, Sergeant Troy," said the Queen of the Corn-market, in an indifferently grateful tone.
The sergeant looked hurt and sad. "Indeed you must not, Miss Everdene," he said. "Why could you think such a thing necessary?"
"I am glad it is not."
"Why? if I may ask without offence."
"Because I don't much want to thank you for anything."
"I am afraid I have made a hole with my tongue that my heart will never mend. O these intolerable times: that ill-luck should follow a man for honestly telling a woman she is beautiful! 'Twas the most I said — you must own that; and the least I could say — that I own myself."
"There is some talk I could do without more easily than money."
"Indeed. That remark is a sort of digression."
"No. It means that I would rather have your room than your company."
"And I would rather have curses from you than kisses from any other woman; so I'll stay here."
Bathsheba was absolutely speechless. And yet she could not help feeling that the assistance he was rendering forbade a harsh repulse.
"Well," continued Troy, "I suppose there is a praise which is rudeness, and that may be mine. At the same time there is a treatment which is injustice, and that may be yours. Because a plain blunt man, who has never been taught concealment, speaks out his mind without exactly intending it, he's to be snapped off like the son of a sinner."
"Indeed there's no such case between us," she said, turning away. "I don't allow strangers to be bold and impudent — even in praise of me."
"Ah — it is not the fact but the method which offends you," he said, carelessly. "But I have the sad satisfaction of knowing that my words, whether pleasing or offensive, are unmistakably true. Would you have had me look at you, and tell my acquaintance that you are quite a common-place woman, to save you the embarrassment of being stared at if they come near you? Not I. I couldn't tell any such ridiculous lie about a beauty to encourage a single woman in England in too excessive a modesty."
"It is all pretence — what you are saying!" exclaimed Bathsheba, laughing in spite of herself at the sly method. "You have a rare invention, Sergeant Troy. Why couldn't you have passed by me that night, and said nothing? — that was all I meant to reproach you for."
"Because I wasn't going to. Half the pleasure of a feeling lies in being able to express it on the spur of the moment, and I let out mine. It would have been just the same if you had been the reverse person — ugly and old — I should have exclaimed about it in the same way."
"How long is it since you have been so afflicted with strong feeling, then?"
"Oh, ever since I was big enough to know loveliness from deformity."
"'Tis to be hoped your sense of the difference you speak of doesn't stop at faces, but extends to morals as well."
"I won't speak of morals or religion — my own or anybody else's. Though perhaps I should have been a very good Christian if you pretty women hadn't made me an idolater."
Bathsheba moved on to hide the irrepressible dimplings of merriment. Troy followed, whirling his crop.
"But — Miss Everdene — you do forgive me?"
"You say such things."
"I said you were beautiful, and I'll say so still; for, by — so you are! The most beautiful ever I saw, or may I fall dead this instant! Why, upon my — "
"Don't — don't! I won't listen to you — you are so profane!" she said, in a restless state between distress at hearing him and a penchant to hear more.
"I again say you are a most fascinating woman. There's nothing remarkable in my saying so, is there? I'm sure the fact is evident enough. Miss Everdene, my opinion may be too forcibly let out to please you, and, for the matter of that, too insignificant to convince you, but surely it is honest, and why can't it be excused?"
"Because it — it isn't a correct one," she femininely murmured.
"Oh, fie — fie! Am I any worse for breaking the third of that Terrible Ten than you for breaking the ninth?"
"Well, it doesn't seem QUITE true to me that I am fascinating," she replied evasively.
"Not so to you: then I say with all respect that, if so, it is owing to your modesty, Miss Everdene. But surely you must have been told by everybody of what everybody notices? And you should take their words for it."
"They don't say so exactly."
"Oh yes, they must!"
"Well, I mean to my face, as you do," she went on, allowing herself to be further lured into a conversation that intention had rigorously forbidden.
"But you know they think so?"
"No — that is — I certainly have heard Liddy say they do, but — " She paused.
Capitulation — that was the purport of the simple reply, guarded as it was — capitulation, unknown to herself. Never did a fragile tailless sentence convey a more perfect meaning. The careless sergeant smiled within himself, and probably too the devil smiled from a loop-hole in Tophet, for the moment was the turning-point of a career. Her tone and mien signified beyond mistake that the seed which was to lift the foundation had taken root in the chink: the remainder was a mere question of time and natural changes.