"Yes, then I'll leave it to time."
She waited a moment. "Very well. I'll marry you in six years from this day, if we both live," she said solemnly.
"And you'll take this as a token from me."
Boldwood had come close to her side, and now he clasped one of her hands in both his own, and lifted it to his breast.
"What is it? Oh I cannot wear a ring!" she exclaimed, on seeing what he held; "besides, I wouldn't have a soul know that it's an engagement! Perhaps it is improper? Besides, we are not engaged in the usual sense, are we? Don't insist, Mr. Boldwood — don't!" In her trouble at not being able to get her hand away from him at once, she stamped passionately on the floor with one foot, and tears crowded to her eyes again.
"It means simply a pledge — no sentiment — the seal of a practical compact," he said more quietly, but still retaining her hand in his firm grasp. "Come, now!" And Boldwood slipped the ring on her finger.
"I cannot wear it," she said, weeping as if her heart would break. "You frighten me, almost. So wild a scheme! Please let me go home!"
"Only to-night: wear it just to-night, to please me!"
Bathsheba sat down in a chair, and buried her face in her handkerchief, though Boldwood kept her hand yet. At length she said, in a sort of hopeless whisper —
"Very well, then, I will to-night, if you wish it so earnestly. Now loosen my hand; I will, indeed I will wear it to-night."
"And it shall be the beginning of a pleasant secret courtship of six years, with a wedding at the end?"
"It must be, I suppose, since you will have it so!" she said, fairly beaten into non-resistance.
Boldwood pressed her hand, and allowed it to drop in her lap. "I am happy now," he said. "God bless you!"
He left the room, and when he thought she might be sufficiently composed sent one of the maids to her. Bathsheba cloaked the effects of the late scene as she best could, followed the girl, and in a few moments came downstairs with her hat and cloak on, ready to go. To get to the door it was necessary to pass through the hall, and before doing so she paused on the bottom of the staircase which descended into one corner, to take a last look at the gathering.
There was no music or dancing in progress just now. At the lower end, which had been arranged for the work-folk specially, a group conversed in whispers, and with clouded looks. Boldwood was standing by the fireplace, and he, too, though so absorbed in visions arising from her promise that he scarcely saw anything, seemed at that moment to have observed their peculiar manner, and their looks askance.
"What is it you are in doubt about, men?" he said.
One of them turned and replied uneasily: "It was something Laban heard of, that's all, sir."
"News? Anybody married or engaged, born or dead?" inquired the farmer, gaily. "Tell it to us, Tall. One would think from your looks and mysterious ways that it was something very dreadful indeed."
"Oh no, sir, nobody is dead," said Tall.
"I wish somebody was," said Samway, in a whisper.
"What do you say, Samway?" asked Boldwood, somewhat sharply. "If you have anything to say, speak out; if not, get up another dance."
"Mrs. Troy has come downstairs," said Samway to Tall. "If you want to tell her, you had better do it now."
"Do you know what they mean?" the farmer asked Bathsheba, across the room.
"I don't in the least," said Bathsheba.
There was a smart rapping at the door. One of the men opened it instantly, and went outside.
"Mrs. Troy is wanted," he said, on returning.
"Quite ready," said Bathsheba. "Though I didn't tell them to send."
"It is a stranger, ma'am," said the man by the door.
"A stranger?" she said.
"Ask him to come in," said Boldwood.
The message was given, and Troy, wrapped up to his eyes as we have seen him, stood in the doorway.
There was an unearthly silence, all looking towards the newcomer. Those who had just learnt that he was in the neighbourhood recognized him instantly; those who did not were perplexed. Nobody noted Bathsheba. She was leaning on the stairs. Her brow had heavily contracted; her whole face was pallid, her lips apart, her eyes rigidly staring at their visitor.
Boldwood was among those who did not notice that he was Troy. "Come in, come in!" he repeated, cheerfully, "and drain a Christmas beaker with us, stranger!"
Troy next advanced into the middle of the room, took off his cap, turned down his coat-collar, and looked Boldwood in the face. Even then Boldwood did not recognize that the impersonator of Heaven's persistent irony towards him, who had once before broken in upon his bliss, scourged him, and snatched his delight away, had come to do these things a second time. Troy began to laugh a mechanical laugh: Boldwood recognized him now.
Troy turned to Bathsheba. The poor girl's wretchedness at this time was beyond all fancy or narration. She had sunk down on the lowest stair; and there she sat, her mouth blue and dry, and her dark eyes fixed vacantly upon him, as if she wondered whether it were not all a terrible illusion.
Then Troy spoke. "Bathsheba, I come here for you!"
She made no reply.
"Come home with me: come!"
Bathsheba moved her feet a little, but did not rise. Troy went across to her.
"Come, madam, do you hear what I say?" he said, peremptorily.
A strange voice came from the fireplace — a voice sounding far off and confined, as if from a dungeon. Hardly a soul in the assembly recognized the thin tones to be those of Boldwood. Sudden dispaire had transformed him.
"Bathsheba, go with your husband!"
Nevertheless, she did not move. The truth was that Bathsheba was beyond the pale of activity — and yet not in a swoon. She was in a state of mental gutta serena; her mind was for the minute totally deprived of light at the same time no obscuration was apparent from without.