"Well, I've thought it best," Oak stammered out. "California is the spot I've had in my mind to try."
"But it is understood everywhere that you are going to take poor Mr. Boldwood's farm on your own account."
"I've had the refusal o' it 'tis true; but nothing is settled yet, and I have reasons for giving up. I shall finish out my year there as manager for the trustees, but no more."
"And what shall I do without you? Oh, Gabriel, I don't think you ought to go away. You've been with me so long — through bright times and dark times — such old friends as we are — that it seems unkind almost. I had fancied that if you leased the other farm as master, you might still give a helping look across at mine. And now going away!"
"I would have willingly."
"Yet now that I am more helpless than ever you go away!"
"Yes, that's the ill fortune o' it," said Gabriel, in a distressed tone. "And it is because of that very helplessness that I feel bound to go. Good afternoon, ma'am" he concluded, in evident anxiety to get away, and at once went out of the churchyard by a path she could follow on no pretence whatever.
Bathsheba went home, her mind occupied with a new trouble, which being rather harassing than deadly was calculated to do good by diverting her from the chronic gloom of her life. She was set thinking a great deal about Oak and of his wish to shun her; and there occurred to Bathsheba several incidents of her latter intercourse with him, which, trivial when singly viewed, amounted together to a perceptible disinclination for her society. It broke upon her at length as a great pain that her last old disciple was about to forsake her and flee. He who had believed in her and argued on her side when all the rest of the world was against her, had at last like the others become weary and neglectful of the old cause, and was leaving her to fight her battles alone.
Three weeks went on, and more evidence of his want of interest in her was forthcoming. She noticed that instead of entering the small parlour or office where the farm accounts were kept, and waiting, or leaving a memorandum as he had hitherto done during her seclusion, Oak never came at all when she was likely to be there, only entering at unseasonable hours when her presence in that part of the house was least to be expected. Whenever he wanted directions he sent a message, or note with neither heading nor signature, to which she was obliged to reply in the same offhand style. Poor Bathsheba began to suffer now from the most torturing sting of all — a sensation that she was despised.
The autumn wore away gloomily enough amid these melancholy conjectures, and Christmas-day came, completing a year of her legal widowhood, and two years and a quarter of her life alone. On examining her heart it appeared beyond measure strange that the subject of which the season might have been supposed suggestive — the event in the hall at Boldwood's — was not agitating her at all; but instead, an agonizing conviction that everybody abjured her — for what she could not tell — and that Oak was the ringleader of the recusants. Coming out of church that day she looked round in hope that Oak, whose bass voice she had heard rolling out from the gallery overhead in a most unconcerned manner, might chance to linger in her path in the old way. There he was, as usual, coming down the path behind her. But on seeing Bathsheba turn, he looked aside, and as soon as he got beyond the gate, and there was the barest excuse for a divergence, he made one, and vanished.
The next morning brought the culminating stroke; she had been expecting it long. It was a formal notice by letter from him that he should not renew his engagement with her for the following Lady-day.
Bathsheba actually sat and cried over this letter most bitterly. She was aggrieved and wounded that the possession of hopeless love from Gabriel, which she had grown to regard as her inalienable right for life, should have been withdrawn just at his own pleasure in this way. She was bewildered too by the prospect of having to rely on her own resources again: it seemed to herself that she never could again acquire energy sufficient to go to market, barter, and sell. Since Troy's death Oak had attended all sales and fairs for her, transacting her business at the same time with his own. What should she do now? Her life was becoming a desolation.
So desolate was Bathsheba this evening, that in an absolute hunger for pity and sympathy, and miserable in that she appeared to have outlived the only true friendship she had ever owned, she put on her bonnet and cloak and went down to Oak's house just after sunset, guided on her way by the pale primrose rays of a crescent moon a few days old.
A lively firelight shone from the window, but nobody was visible in the room. She tapped nervously, and then thought it doubtful if it were right for a single woman to call upon a bachelor who lived alone, although he was her manager, and she might be supposed to call on business without any real impropriety. Gabriel opened the door, and the moon shone upon his forehead.
"Mr. Oak," said Bathsheba, faintly.
"Yes; I am Mr. Oak," said Gabriel. "Who have I the honour — O how stupid of me, not to know you, mistress!"
"I shall not be your mistress much longer, shall I Gabriel?" she said, in pathetic tones.
"Well, no. I suppose — But come in, ma'am. Oh — and I'll get a light," Oak replied, with some awkwardness.
"No; not on my account."
"It is so seldom that I get a lady visitor that I'm afraid I haven't proper accommodation. Will you sit down, please? Here's a chair, and there's one, too. I am sorry that my chairs all have wood seats, and are rather hard, but I — was thinking of getting some new ones." Oak placed two or three for her.
"They are quite easy enough for me."
So down she sat, and down sat he, the fire dancing in their faces, and upon the old furniture,
Wi' long years o' handlen,
that formed Oak's array of household possessions, which sent back a dancing reflection in reply. It was very odd to these two persons, who knew each other passing well, that the mere circumstance of their meeting in a new place and in a new way should make them so awkward and constrained. In the fields, or at her house, there had never been any embarrassment; but now that Oak had become the entertainer their lives seemed to be moved back again to the days when they were strangers.
"You'll think it strange that I have come, but — "
"Oh no; not at all."
"But I thought — Gabriel, I have been uneasy in the belief that I have offended you, and that you are going away on that account. It grieved me very much and I couldn't help coming."
"Offended me! As if you could do that, Bathsheba!"
"Haven't I?" she asked, gladly. "But, what are you going away for else?"