"I think so too," said Bathsheba. "Though there are multitudes of gleams, look!"
The sky was now filled with an incessant light, frequent repetition melting into complete continuity, as an unbroken sound results from the successive strokes on a gong.
"Nothing serious," said he. "I cannot understand no rain falling. But Heaven be praised, it is all the better for us. I am now going up again."
"Gabriel, you are kinder than I deserve! I will stay and help you yet. Oh, why are not some of the others here!"
"They would have been here if they could," said Oak, in a hesitating way.
"O, I know it all — all," she said, adding slowly: "They are all asleep in the barn, in a drunken sleep, and my husband among them. That's it, is it not? Don't think I am a timid woman and can't endure things."
"I am not certain," said Gabriel. "I will go and see."
He crossed to the barn, leaving her there alone. He looked through the chinks of the door. All was in total darkness, as he had left it, and there still arose, as at the former time, the steady buzz of many snores.
He felt a zephyr curling about his cheek, and turned. It was Bathsheba's breath — she had followed him, and was looking into the same chink.
He endeavoured to put off the immediate and painful subject of their thoughts by remarking gently, "If you'll come back again, miss — ma'am, and hand up a few more; it would save much time."
Then Oak went back again, ascended to the top, stepped off the ladder for greater expedition, and went on thatching. She followed, but without a sheaf.
"Gabriel," she said, in a strange and impressive voice.
Oak looked up at her. She had not spoken since he left the barn. The soft and continual shimmer of the dying lightning showed a marble face high against the black sky of the opposite quarter. Bathsheba was sitting almost on the apex of the stack, her feet gathered up beneath her, and resting on the top round of the ladder.
"Yes, mistress," he said.
"I suppose you thought that when I galloped away to Bath that night it was on purpose to be married?"
"I did at last — not at first," he answered, somewhat surprised at the abruptness with which this new subject was broached.
"And others thought so, too?"
"And you blamed me for it?"
"Well — a little."
"I thought so. Now, I care a little for your good opinion, and I want to explain something — I have longed to do it ever since I returned, and you looked so gravely at me. For if I were to die — and I may die soon — it would be dreadful that you should always think mistakenly of me. Now, listen."
Gabriel ceased his rustling.
"I went to Bath that night in the full intention of breaking off my engagement to Mr. Troy. It was owing to circumstances which occurred after I got there that — that we were married. Now, do you see the matter in a new light?"
"I do — somewhat."
"I must, I suppose, say more, now that I have begun. And perhaps it's no harm, for you are certainly under no delusion that I ever loved you, or that I can have any object in speaking, more than that object I have mentioned. Well, I was alone in a strange city, and the horse was lame. And at last I didn't know what to do. I saw, when it was too late, that scandal might seize hold of me for meeting him alone in that way. But I was coming away, when he suddenly said he had that day seen a woman more beautiful than I, and that his constancy could not be counted on unless I at once became his . . . . And I was grieved and troubled — " She cleared her voice, and waited a moment, as if to gather breath. "And then, between jealousy and distraction, I married him!" she whispered with desperate impetuosity.
Gabriel made no reply.
"He was not to blame, for it was perfectly true about — about his seeing somebody else," she quickly added. "And now I don't wish for a single remark from you upon the subject — indeed, I forbid it. I only wanted you to know that misunderstood bit of my history before a time comes when you could never know it. — You want some more sheaves?"
She went down the ladder, and the work proceeded. Gabriel soon perceived a languor in the movements of his mistress up and down, and he said to her, gently as a mother —
"I think you had better go indoors now, you are tired. I can finish the rest alone. If the wind does not change the rain is likely to keep off."
"If I am useless I will go," said Bathsheba, in a flagging cadence. "But O, if your life should be lost!"
"You are not useless; but I would rather not tire you longer. You have done well."
"And you better!" she said, gratefully. "Thank you for your devotion, a thousand times, Gabriel! Goodnight — I know you are doing your very best for me."
She diminished in the gloom, and vanished, and he heard the latch of the gate fall as she passed through. He worked in a reverie now, musing upon her story, and upon the contradictoriness of that feminine heart which had caused her to speak more warmly to him to-night than she ever had done whilst unmarried and free to speak as warmly as she chose.
He was disturbed in his meditation by a grating noise from the coach-house. It was the vane on the roof turning round, and this change in the wind was the signal for a disastrous rain.