"There the truth comes out!" said the soldier, in reply. "Never tell me that a young lady can live in a buzz of admiration without knowing something about it. Ah, well, Miss Everdene, you are — pardon my blunt way — you are rather an injury to our race than otherwise."
"How — indeed?" she said, opening her eyes.
"Oh, it is true enough. I may as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb (an old country saying, not of much account, but it will do for a rough soldier), and so I will speak my mind, regardless of your pleasure, and without hoping or intending to get your pardon. Why, Miss Everdene, it is in this manner that your good looks may do more harm than good in the world." The sergeant looked down the mead in critical abstraction. "Probably some one man on an average falls in love with each ordinary woman. She can marry him: he is content, and leads a useful life. Such women as you a hundred men always covet — your eyes will bewitch scores on scores into an unavailing fancy for you — you can only marry one of that many. Out of these say twenty will endeavour to drown the bitterness of despised love in drink; twenty more will mope away their lives without a wish or attempt to make a mark in he world, because they have no ambition apart from their attachment to you; twenty more — the susceptible person myself possibly among them — will be always draggling after you, getting where they may just see you, doing desperate things. Men are such constant fools! The rest may try to get over their passion with more or less success. But all these men will be saddened. And not only those ninety-nine men, but the ninety-nine women they might have married are saddened with them. There's my tale. That's why I say that a woman so charming as yourself, Miss Everdene, is hardly a blessing to her race."
The handsome sergeant's features were during this speech as rigid and stern as John Knox's in addressing his gay young queen.
Seeing she made no reply, he said, "Do you read French?"
"No; I began, but when I got to the verbs, father died," she said simply.
"I do — when I have an opportunity, which latterly has not been often (my mother was a Parisienne) — and there's a proverb they have, Qui aime bien châtie bien — 'He chastens who loves well.' Do you understand me?"
"Ah!" she replied, and there was even a little tremulousness in the usually cool girl's voice; "if you can only fight half as winningly as you can talk, you are able to make a pleasure of a bayonet wound!" And then poor Bathsheba instantly perceived her slip in making this admission: in hastily trying to retrieve it, she went from bad to worse. "Don't, however, suppose that I derive any pleasure from what you tell me."
"I know you do not — I know it perfectly," said Troy, with much hearty conviction on the exterior of his face: and altering the expression to moodiness; "when a dozen men are ready to speak tenderly to you, and give the admiration you deserve without adding the warning you need, it stands to reason that my poor rough-and-ready mixture of praise and blame cannot convey much pleasure. Fool as I may be, I am not so conceited as to suppose that!"
"I think you — are conceited, nevertheless," said Bathsheba, looking askance at a reed she was fitfully pulling with one hand, having lately grown feverish under the soldier's system of procedure — not because the nature of his cajolery was entirely unperceived, but because its vigour was overwhelming.
"I would not own it to anybody else — nor do I exactly to you. Still, there might have been some self-conceit in my foolish supposition the other night. I knew that what I said in admiration might be an opinion too often forced upon you to give any pleasure, but I certainly did think that the kindness of your nature might prevent you judging an uncontrolled tongue harshly — which you have done — and thinking badly of me and wounding me this morning, when I am working hard to save your hay."
"Well, you need not think more of that: perhaps you did not mean to be rude to me by speaking out your mind: indeed, I believe you did not," said the shrewd woman, in painfully innocent earnest. "And I thank you for giving help here. But — but mind you don't speak to me again in that way, or in any other, unless I speak to you."
"Oh, Miss Bathsheba! That is too hard!"
"No, it isn't. Why is it?"
"You will never speak to me; for I shall not be here long. I am soon going back again to the miserable monotony of drill — and perhaps our regiment will be ordered out soon. And yet you take away the one little ewe-lamb of pleasure that I have in this dull life of mine. Well, perhaps generosity is not a woman's most marked characteristic."
"When are you going from here?" she asked, with some interest.
"In a month."
"But how can it give you pleasure to speak to me?"
"Can you ask Miss Everdene — knowing as you do — what my offence is based on?"
"If you do care so much for a silly trifle of that kind, then, I don't mind doing it," she uncertainly and doubtingly answered. "But you can't really care for a word from me? you only say so — I think you only say so."
"That's unjust — but I won't repeat the remark. I am too gratified to get such a mark of your friendship at any price to cavil at the tone. I DO, Miss Everdene, care for it. You may think a man foolish to want a mere word — just a good morning. Perhaps he is — I don't know. But you have never been a man looking upon a woman, and that woman yourself."
"Then you know nothing of what such an experience is like — and Heaven forbid that you ever should!"
"Nonsense, flatterer! What is it like? I am interested in knowing."
"Put shortly, it is not being able to think, hear, or look in any direction except one without wretchedness, nor there without torture."
"Ah, sergeant, it won't do — you are pretending!" she said, shaking her head. "Your words are too dashing to be true."
"I am not, upon the honour of a soldier."
"But WHY is it so? — Of course I ask for mere pastime."
"Because you are so distracting — and I am so distracted."
"You look like it."
"I am indeed."
"Why, you only saw me the other night!"
"That makes no difference. The lightning works instantaneously. I loved you then, at once — as I do now."
Bathsheba surveyed him curiously, from the feet upward, as high as she liked to venture her glance, which was not quite so high as his eyes.
"You cannot and you don't," she said demurely. "There is no such sudden feeling in people. I won't listen to you any longer. Hear me, I wish I knew what o'clock it is — I am going — I have wasted too much time here already!"