"Now listen once more," Boldwood pleaded. "If I wait that time, will you marry me? You own that you owe me amends — let that be your way of making them."
"But, Mr. Boldwood — six years — "
"Do you want to be the wife of any other man?"
"No indeed! I mean, that I don't like to talk about this matter now. Perhaps it is not proper, and I ought not to allow it. Let us drop it. My husband may be living, as I said."
"Of course, I'll drop the subject if you wish. But propriety has nothing to do with reasons. I am a middle-aged man, willing to protect you for the remainder of our lives. On your side, at least, there is no passion or blamable haste — on mine, perhaps, there is. But I can't help seeing that if you choose from a feeling of pity, and, as you say, a wish to make amends, to make a bargain with me for a far-ahead time — an agreement which will set all things right and make me happy, late though it may be — there is no fault to be found with you as a woman. Hadn't I the first place beside you? Haven't you been almost mine once already? Surely you can say to me as much as this, you will have me back again should circumstances permit? Now, pray speak! O Bathsheba, promise — it is only a little promise — that if you marry again, you will marry me!"
His tone was so excited that she almost feared him at this moment, even whilst she sympathized. It was a simple physical fear — the weak of the strong; there was no emotional aversion or inner repugnance. She said, with some distress in her voice, for she remembered vividly his outburst on the Yalbury Road, and shrank from a repetition of his anger: —
"I will never marry another man whilst you wish me to be your wife, whatever comes — but to say more — you have taken me so by surprise — "
"But let it stand in these simple words — that in six years' time you will be my wife? Unexpected accidents we'll not mention, because those, of course, must be given way to. Now, this time I know you will keep your word."
"That's why I hesitate to give it."
"But do give it! Remember the past, and be kind."
She breathed; and then said mournfully: "Oh what shall I do? I don't love you, and I much fear that I never shall love you as much as a woman ought to love a husband. If you, sir, know that, and I can yet give you happiness by a mere promise to marry at the end of six years, if my husband should not come back, it is a great honour to me. And if you value such an act of friendship from a woman who doesn't esteem herself as she did, and has little love left, why I — I will — "
" — Consider, if I cannot promise soon."
"But soon is perhaps never?"
"Oh no, it is not! I mean soon. Christmas, we'll say."
"Christmas!" He said nothing further till he added: "Well, I'll say no more to you about it till that time."
Bathsheba was in a very peculiar state of mind, which showed how entirely the soul is the slave of the body, the ethereal spirit dependent for its quality upon the tangible flesh and blood. It is hardly too much to say that she felt coerced by a force stronger than her own will, not only into the act of promising upon this singularly remote and vague matter, but into the emotion of fancying that she ought to promise. When the weeks intervening between the night of this conversation and Christmas day began perceptibly to diminish, her anxiety and perplexity increased.
One day she was led by an accident into an oddly confidential dialogue with Gabriel about her difficulty. It afforded her a little relief — of a dull and cheerless kind. They were auditing accounts, and something occurred in the course of their labours which led Oak to say, speaking of Boldwood, "He'll never forget you, ma'am, never."
Then out came her trouble before she was aware; and she told him how she had again got into the toils; what Boldwood had asked her, and how he was expecting her assent. "The most mournful reason of all for my agreeing to it," she said sadly, "and the true reason why I think to do so for good or for evil, is this — it is a thing I have not breathed to a living soul as yet — I believe that if I don't give my word, he'll go out of his mind."
"Really, do ye?" said Gabriel, gravely.
"I believe this," she continued, with reckless frankness; "and Heaven knows I say it in a spirit the very reverse of vain, for I am grieved and troubled to my soul about it — I believe I hold that man's future in my hand. His career depends entirely upon my treatment of him. O Gabriel, I tremble at my responsibility, for it is terrible!"
"Well, I think this much, ma'am, as I told you years ago," said Oak, "that his life is a total blank whenever he isn't hoping for 'ee; but I can't suppose — I hope that nothing so dreadful hangs on to it as you fancy. His natural manner has always been dark and strange, you know. But since the case is so sad and odd-like, why don't ye give the conditional promise? I think I would."
"But is it right? Some rash acts of my past life have taught me that a watched woman must have very much circumspection to retain only a very little credit, and I do want and long to be discreet in this! And six years — why we may all be in our graves by that time, even if Mr. Troy does not come back again, which he may not impossibly do! Such thoughts give a sort of absurdity to the scheme. Now, isn't it preposterous, Gabriel? However he came to dream of it, I cannot think. But is it wrong? You know — you are older than I."
"Eight years older, ma'am."
"Yes, eight years — and is it wrong?"
"Perhaps it would be an uncommon agreement for a man and woman to make: I don't see anything really wrong about it," said Oak, slowly. "In fact the very thing that makes it doubtful if you ought to marry en under any condition, that is, your not caring about him — for I may suppose — "
"Yes, you may suppose that love is wanting," she said shortly. "Love is an utterly bygone, sorry, worn-out, miserable thing with me — for him or any one else."
"Well, your want of love seems to me the one thing that takes away harm from such an agreement with him. If wild heat had to do wi' it, making ye long to over-come the awkwardness about your husband's vanishing, it mid be wrong; but a cold-hearted agreement to oblige a man seems different, somehow. The real sin, ma'am in my mind, lies in thinking of ever wedding wi' a man you don't love honest and true."
"That I'm willing to pay the penalty of," said Bathsheba, firmly. "You know, Gabriel, this is what I cannot get off my conscience — that I once seriously injured him in sheer idleness. If I had never played a trick upon him, he would never have wanted to marry me. Oh if I could only pay some heavy damages in money to him for the harm I did, and so get the sin off my soul that way! . . . Well, there's the debt, which can only be discharged in one way, and I believe I am bound to do it if it honestly lies in my power, without any consideration of my own future at all. When a rake gambles away his expectations, the fact that it is an inconvenient debt doesn't make him the less liable. I've been a rake, and the single point I ask you is, considering that my own scruples, and the fact that in the eye of the law my husband is only missing, will keep any man from marrying me until seven years have passed — am I free to entertain such an idea, even though 'tis a sort of penance — for it will be that? I HATE the act of marriage under such circumstances, and the class of women I should seem to belong to by doing it!"