"I am not going to emigrate, you know; I wasn't aware that you would wish me not to when I told 'ee or I shouldn't ha' thought of doing it," he said, simply. "I have arranged for Little Weatherbury Farm and shall have it in my own hands at Lady-day. You know I've had a share in it for some time. Still, that wouldn't prevent my attending to your business as before, hadn't it been that things have been said about us."
"What?" said Bathsheba, in surprise. "Things said about you and me! What are they?"
"I cannot tell you."
"It would be wiser if you were to, I think. You have played the part of mentor to me many times, and I don't see why you should fear to do it now."
"It is nothing that you have done, this time. The top and tail o't is this — that I am sniffing about here, and waiting for poor Boldwood's farm, with a thought of getting you some day."
"Getting me! What does that mean?"
"Marrying of 'ee, in plain British. You asked me to tell, so you mustn't blame me."
Bathsheba did not look quite so alarmed as if a cannon had been discharged by her ear, which was what Oak had expected. "Marrying me! I didn't know it was that you meant," she said, quietly. "Such a thing as that is too absurd — too soon — to think of, by far!"
"Yes; of course, it is too absurd. I don't desire any such thing; I should think that was plain enough by this time. Surely, surely you be the last person in the world I think of marrying. It is too absurd, as you say."
"'Too — s-s-soon' were the words I used."
"I must beg your pardon for correcting you, but you said, 'too absurd,' and so do I."
"I beg your pardon too!" she returned, with tears in her eyes. "'Too soon' was what I said. But it doesn't matter a bit — not at all — but I only meant, 'too soon.' Indeed, I didn't, Mr. Oak, and you must believe me!"
Gabriel looked her long in the face, but the firelight being faint there was not much to be seen. "Bathsheba," he said, tenderly and in surprise, and coming closer: "if I only knew one thing — whether you would allow me to love you and win you, and marry you after all — if I only knew that!"
"But you never will know," she murmured.
"Because you never ask."
"Oh — Oh!" said Gabriel, with a low laugh of joyousness. "My own dear — "
"You ought not to have sent me that harsh letter this morning," she interrupted. "It shows you didn't care a bit about me, and were ready to desert me like all the rest of them! It was very cruel of you, considering I was the first sweetheart that you ever had, and you were the first I ever had; and I shall not forget it!"
"Now, Bathsheba, was ever anybody so provoking," he said, laughing. "You know it was purely that I, as an unmarried man, carrying on a business for you as a very taking young woman, had a proper hard part to play — more particular that people knew I had a sort of feeling for 'ee; and I fancied, from the way we were mentioned together, that it might injure your good name. Nobody knows the heat and fret I have been caused by it."
"And was that all?"
"Oh, how glad I am I came!" she exclaimed, thankfully, as she rose from her seat. "I have thought so much more of you since I fancied you did not want even to see me again. But I must be going now, or I shall be missed. Why Gabriel," she said, with a slight laugh, as they went to the door, "it seems exactly as if I had come courting you — how dreadful!"
"And quite right too," said Oak. "I've danced at your skittish heels, my beautiful Bathsheba, for many a long mile, and many a long day; and it is hard to begrudge me this one visit."
He accompanied her up the hill, explaining to her the details of his forthcoming tenure of the other farm. They spoke very little of their mutual feeling; pretty phrases and warm expressions being probably unnecessary between such tried friends. Theirs was that substantial affection which arises (if any arises at all) when the two who are thrown together begin first by knowing the rougher sides of each other's character, and not the best till further on, the romance growing up in the interstices of a mass of hard prosaic reality. This good-fellowship — camaraderie — usually occurring through similarity of pursuits, is unfortunately seldom superadded to love between the sexes, because men and women associate, not in their labours, but in their pleasures merely. Where, however, happy circumstance permits its development, the compounded feeling proves itself to be the only love which is strong as death — that love which many waters cannot quench, nor the floods drown, beside which the passion usually called by the name is evanescent as steam.