"I cannot say," replied Oak.
"Oh 'tis true enough, faith. I cannot understand Farmer Boldwood being such a fool at his time of life as to ho and hanker after this woman in the way 'a do, and she not care a bit about en."
The men, after recognizing Troy's features, withdrew across the orchard as quietly as they had come. The air was big with Bathsheba's fortunes to-night: every word everywhere concerned her. When they were quite out of earshot all by one instinct paused.
"It gave me quite a turn — his face," said Tall, breathing.
"And so it did me," said Samway. "What's to be done?"
"I don't see that 'tis any business of ours," Smallbury murmured dubiously.
"But it is! 'Tis a thing which is everybody's business," said Samway. "We know very well that master's on a wrong tack, and that she's quite in the dark, and we should let 'em know at once. Laban, you know her best — you'd better go and ask to speak to her."
"I bain't fit for any such thing," said Laban, nervously. "I should think William ought to do it if anybody. He's oldest."
"I shall have nothing to do with it," said Smallbury. "'Tis a ticklish business altogether. Why, he'll go on to her himself in a few minutes, ye'll see."
"We don't know that he will. Come, Laban."
"Very well, if I must I must, I suppose," Tall reluctantly answered. "What must I say?"
"Just ask to see master."
"Oh no; I shan't speak to Mr. Boldwood. If I tell anybody, 'twill be mistress."
"Very well," said Samway.
Laban then went to the door. When he opened it the hum of bustle rolled out as a wave upon a still strand — the assemblage being immediately inside the hall — and was deadened to a murmur as he closed it again. Each man waited intently, and looked around at the dark tree tops gently rocking against the sky and occasionally shivering in a slight wind, as if he took interest in the scene, which neither did. One of them began walking up and down, and then came to where he started from and stopped again, with a sense that walking was a thing not worth doing now.
"I should think Laban must have seen mistress by this time," said Smallbury, breaking the silence. "Perhaps she won't come and speak to him."
The door opened. Tall appeared, and joined them.
"Well?" said both.
"I didn't like to ask for her after all," Laban faltered out. "They were all in such a stir, trying to put a little spirit into the party. Somehow the fun seems to hang fire, though everything's there that a heart can desire, and I couldn't for my soul interfere and throw damp upon it — if 'twas to save my life, I couldn't!"
"I suppose we had better all go in together," said Samway, gloomily. "Perhaps I may have a chance of saying a word to master."
So the men entered the hall, which was the room selected and arranged for the gathering because of its size. The younger men and maids were at last just beginning to dance. Bathsheba had been perplexed how to act, for she was not much more than a slim young maid herself, and the weight of stateliness sat heavy upon her. Sometimes she thought she ought not to have come under any circumstances; then she considered what cold unkindness that would have been, and finally resolved upon the middle course of staying for about an hour only, and gliding off unobserved, having from the first made up her mind that she could on no account dance, sing, or take any active part in the proceedings.
Her allotted hour having been passed in chatting and looking on, Bathsheba told Liddy not to hurry herself, and went to the small parlour to prepare for departure, which, like the hall, was decorated with holly and ivy, and well lighted up.
Nobody was in the room, but she had hardly been there a moment when the master of the house entered.
"Mrs. Troy — you are not going?" he said. "We've hardly begun!"
"If you'll excuse me, I should like to go now." Her manner was restive, for she remembered her promise, and imagined what he was about to say. "But as it is not late," she added, "I can walk home, and leave my man and Liddy to come when they choose."
"I've been trying to get an opportunity of speaking to you," said Boldwood. "You know perhaps what I long to say?"
Bathsheba silently looked on the floor.
"You do give it?" he said, eagerly.
"What?" she whispered.
"Now, that's evasion! Why, the promise. I don't want to intrude upon you at all, or to let it become known to anybody. But do give your word! A mere business compact, you know, between two people who are beyond the influence of passion." Boldwood knew how false this picture was as regarded himself; but he had proved that it was the only tone in which she would allow him to approach her. "A promise to marry me at the end of five years and three-quarters. You owe it to me!"
"I feel that I do," said Bathsheba; "that is, if you demand it. But I am a changed woman — an unhappy woman — and not — not — "
"You are still a very beautiful woman," said Boldwood. Honesty and pure conviction suggested the remark, unaccompanied by any perception that it might have been adopted by blunt flattery to soothe and win her.
However, it had not much effect now, for she said, in a passionless murmur which was in itself a proof of her words: "I have no feeling in the matter at all. And I don't at all know what is right to do in my difficult position, and I have nobody to advise me. But I give my promise, if I must. I give it as the rendering of a debt, conditionally, of course, on my being a widow."
"You'll marry me between five and six years hence?"
"Don't press me too hard. I'll marry nobody else."
"But surely you will name the time, or there's nothing in the promise at all?"
"Oh, I don't know, pray let me go!" she said, her bosom beginning to rise. "I am afraid what to do! I want to be just to you, and to be that seems to be wronging myself, and perhaps it is breaking the commandments. There is considerable doubt of his death, and then it is dreadful; let me ask a solicitor, Mr. Boldwood, if I ought or no!"
"Say the words, dear one, and the subject shall be dismissed; a blissful loving intimacy of six years, and then marriage — O Bathsheba, say them!" he begged in a husky voice, unable to sustain the forms of mere friendship any longer. "Promise yourself to me; I deserve it, indeed I do, for I have loved you more than anybody in the world! And if I said hasty words and showed uncalled-for heat of manner towards you, believe me, dear, I did not mean to distress you; I was in agony, Bathsheba, and I did not know what I said. You wouldn't let a dog suffer what I have suffered, could you but know it! Sometimes I shrink from your knowing what I have felt for you, and sometimes I am distressed that all of it you never will know. Be gracious, and give up a little to me, when I would give up my life for you!"
The trimmings of her dress, as they quivered against the light, showed how agitated she was, and at last she burst out crying. "And you'll not — press me — about anything more — if I say in five or six years?" she sobbed, when she had power to frame the words.