The other day they said you were trifling with him, and you almost proved that you were not; lately they have said that you be not, and you straightway begin to show — "
"That I am, I suppose you mean."
"Well, I hope they speak the truth."
"They do, but wrongly applied. I don't trifle with him; but then, I have nothing to do with him."
Oak was unfortunately led on to speak of Boldwood's rival in a wrong tone to her after all. "I wish you had never met that young Sergeant Troy, miss," he sighed.
Bathsheba's steps became faintly spasmodic. "Why?" she asked.
"He is not good enough for 'ee."
"Did any one tell you to speak to me like this?"
"Nobody at all."
"Then it appears to me that Sergeant Troy does not concern us here," she said, intractably. "Yet I must say that Sergeant Troy is an educated man, and quite worthy of any woman. He is well born."
"His being higher in learning and birth than the ruck o' soldiers is anything but a proof of his worth. It show's his course to be down'ard."
"I cannot see what this has to do with our conversation. Mr. Troy's course is not by any means downward; and his superiority IS a proof of his worth!"
"I believe him to have no conscience at all. And I cannot help begging you, miss, to have nothing to do with him. Listen to me this once — only this once! I don't say he's such a bad man as I have fancied — I pray to God he is not. But since we don't exactly know what he is, why not behave as if he MIGHT be bad, simply for your own safety? Don't trust him, mistress; I ask you not to trust him so."
"I like soldiers, but this one I do not like," he said, sturdily. "His cleverness in his calling may have tempted him astray, and what is mirth to the neighbours is ruin to the woman. When he tries to talk to 'ee again, why not turn away with a short 'Good day'; and when you see him coming one way, turn the other. When he says anything laughable, fail to see the point and don't smile, and speak of him before those who will report your talk as 'that fantastical man,' or 'that Sergeant What's-his-name.' 'That man of a family that has come to the dogs.' Don't be unmannerly towards en, but harmless-uncivil, and so get rid of the man."
No Christmas robin detained by a window-pane ever pulsed as did Bathsheba now.
"I say — I say again — that it doesn't become you to talk about him. Why he should be mentioned passes me quite!" she exclaimed desperately. "I know this, th-th-that he is a thoroughly conscientious man — blunt sometimes even to rudeness — but always speaking his mind about you plain to your face!"
"He is as good as anybody in this parish! He is very particular, too, about going to church — yes, he is!"
"I am afeard nobody saw him there. I never did, certainly."
"The reason of that is," she said eagerly, "that he goes in privately by the old tower door, just when the service commences, and sits at the back of the gallery. He told me so."
This supreme instance of Troy's goodness fell upon Gabriel ears like the thirteenth stroke of crazy clock. It was not only received with utter incredulity as regarded itself, but threw a doubt on all the assurances that had preceded it.
Oak was grieved to find how entirely she trusted him. He brimmed with deep feeling as he replied in a steady voice, the steadiness of which was spoilt by the palpableness of his great effort to keep it so: —
"You know, mistress, that I love you, and shall love you always. I only mention this to bring to your mind that at any rate I would wish to do you no harm: beyond that I put it aside. I have lost in the race for money and good things, and I am not such a fool as to pretend to 'ee now I am poor, and you have got altogether above me. But Bathsheba, dear mistress, this I beg you to consider — that, both to keep yourself well honoured among the workfolk, and in common generosity to an honourable man who loves you as well as I, you should be more discreet in your bearing towards this soldier."
"Don't, don't, don't!" she exclaimed, in a choking voice.
"Are ye not more to me than my own affairs, and even life!" he went on. "Come, listen to me! I am six years older than you, and Mr. Boldwood is ten years older than I, and consider — I do beg of 'ee to consider before it is too late — how safe you would be in his hands!"
Oak's allusion to his own love for her lessened, to some extent, her anger at his interference; but she could not really forgive him for letting his wish to marry her be eclipsed by his wish to do her good, any more than for his slighting treatment of Troy.
"I wish you to go elsewhere," she commanded, a paleness of face invisible to the eye being suggested by the trembling words. "Do not remain on this farm any longer. I don't want you — I beg you to go!"
"That's nonsense," said Oak, calmly. "This is the second time you have pretended to dismiss me; and what's the use o' it?"
"Pretended! You shall go, sir — your lecturing I will not hear! I am mistress here."