"Let me think," said Mrs. Hurst, poking the fire superfluously . . . . "Yes — bless you, ever so many young men. You see, Farmer Oak, she's so good-looking, and an excellent scholar besides — she was going to be a governess once, you know, only she was too wild. Not that her young men ever come here — but, Lord, in the nature of women, she must have a dozen!"
"That's unfortunate," said Farmer Oak, contemplating a crack in the stone floor with sorrow. "I'm only an every-day sort of man, and my only chance was in being the first comer . . . Well, there's no use in my waiting, for that was all I came about: so I'll take myself off home-along, Mrs. Hurst."
When Gabriel had gone about two hundred yards along the down, he heard a "hoi-hoi!" uttered behind him, in a piping note of more treble quality than that in which the exclamation usually embodies itself when shouted across a field. He looked round, and saw a girl racing after him, waving a white handkerchief.
Oak stood still — and the runner drew nearer. It was Bathsheba Everdene. Gabriel's colour deepened: hers was already deep, not, as it appeared, from emotion, but from running.
"Farmer Oak — I — " she said, pausing for want of breath pulling up in front of him with a slanted face and putting her hand to her side.
"I have just called to see you," said Gabriel, pending her further speech.
"Yes — I know that," she said panting like a robin, her face red and moist from her exertions, like a peony petal before the sun dries off the dew. "I didn't know you had come to ask to have me, or I should have come in from the garden instantly. I ran after you to say — that my aunt made a mistake in sending you away from courting me — "
Gabriel expanded. "I'm sorry to have made you run so fast, my dear," he said, with a grateful sense of favours to come. "Wait a bit till you've found your breath."
" — It was quite a mistake — aunt's telling you I had a young man already," Bathsheba went on. "I haven't a sweetheart at all — and I never had one, and I thought that, as times go with women, it was SUCH a pity to send you away thinking that I had several."
"Really and truly I am glad to hear that!" said Farmer Oak, smiling one of his long special smiles, and blushing with gladness. He held out his hand to take hers, which, when she had eased her side by pressing it there, was prettily extended upon her bosom to still her loud-beating heart. Directly he seized it she put it behind her, so that it slipped through his fingers like an eel."
"I have a nice snug little farm," said Gabriel, with half a degree less assurance than when he had seized her hand.
"Yes; you have."
"A man has advanced me money to begin with, but still, it will soon be paid off, and though I am only an every-day sort of man, I have got on a little since I was a boy." Gabriel uttered "a little" in a tone to show her that it was the complacent form of "a great deal." He continued: "When we be married, I am quite sure I can work twice as hard as I do now."
He went forward and stretched out his arm again. Bathsheba had overtaken him at a point beside which stood a low stunted holly bush, now laden with red berries. Seeing his advance take the form of an attitude threatening a possible enclosure, if not compression, of her person, she edged off round the bush.
"Why, Farmer Oak," she said, over the top, looking at him with rounded eyes, "I never said I was going to marry you."
"Well — that IS a tale!" said Oak, with dismay. "To run after anybody like this, and then say you don't want him!"
"What I meant to tell you was only this," she said eagerly, and yet half conscious of the absurdity of the position she had made for herself — "that nobody has got me yet as a sweetheart, instead of my having a dozen, as my aunt said; I HATE to be thought men's property in that way, though possibly I shall be had some day. Why, if I'd wanted you I shouldn't have run after you like this; 'twould have been the FORWARDEST thing! But there was no harm in hurrying to correct a piece of false news that had been told you."
"Oh, no — no harm at all." But there is such a thing as being too generous in expressing a judgment impulsively, and Oak added with a more appreciative sense of all the circumstances — "Well, I am not quite certain it was no harm."
"Indeed, I hadn't time to think before starting whether I wanted to marry or not, for you'd have been gone over the hill."
"Come," said Gabriel, freshening again; "think a minute or two. I'll wait a while, Miss Everdene. Will you marry me? Do, Bathsheba. I love you far more than common!"
"I'll try to think," she observed, rather more timorously; "if I can think out of doors; my mind spreads away so."
"But you can give a guess."
"Then give me time." Bathsheba looked thoughtfully into the distance, away from the direction in which Gabriel stood.
"I can make you happy," said he to the back of her head, across the bush. "You shall have a piano in a year or two — farmers' wives are getting to have pianos now — and I'll practise up the flute right well to play with you in the evenings."
"Yes; I should like that."
"And have one of those little ten-pound gigs for market — and nice flowers, and birds — cocks and hens I mean, because they be useful," continued Gabriel, feeling balanced between poetry and practicality.
"I should like it very much."
"And a frame for cucumbers — like a gentleman and lady."
"And when the wedding was over, we'd have it put in the newspaper list of marriages."
"Dearly I should like that!"
"And the babies in the births — every man jack of 'em! And at home by the fire, whenever you look up, there I shall be — and whenever I look up there will be you."
"Wait, wait, and don't be improper!"
Her countenance fell, and she was silent awhile. He regarded the red berries between them over and over again, to such an extent, that holly seemed in his after life to be a cypher signifying a proposal of marriage. Bathsheba decisively turned to him.