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Seven hundred and fifty pounds in the divinest form that money can wear-that of necessary food for man and beast: should the risk be run of deteriorating this bulk of corn to less than half its value, because of the instability of a woman ?
I can prevent it!” said Gabriel.
Such was the argument that Oak set outwardly before him. But man, even to himself, is a cryptographic page having an ostensible writing, and another between the lines. It is possible that there was this golden legend under the utilitarian one: “I will help, to my last effort, the woman I have loved so dearly."
He went back to the barn to endeavour to obtain assistance for covering the ricks that very night. All was silent within, and he would have passed on in the belief that the party had broken up, had not a dim light, yellow as saffron by contrast with the greenish whiteness outside, streamed through a knot-hole in the folding doors.
Gabriel looked in. An offensive picture met his eye.
The candles suspended among the evergreens had burnt down to their sockets, and in some cases the leaves tied about them were scorched. Many of the lights had quite gone out, others smoked and stank, grease dropping from them upon the floor. Here, under the table, and leaning against forms and chairs in every conceivable attitude except the perpendicular, were the wretched persons of all the workfolk, the hair of their heads at such low levels being suggestive of mops and brooms. In the midst of these shone red and distinct the figure of Sergeant Troy, leaning back in a chair. Coggan was on his back, with his mouth open, buzzing forth snores, as were several others; the united breathings of the horizontal assemblage forming & subdued roar like London from a distance. Joseph Poorgrass was curled round in the fashion of a hedgehog, apparently in attempts to present the least possible portion of his surface to the air; and behind him was dimly visible an unimportant remnant of William Smallbury. The glasses and cups still stood' upon the table, a water-jug being overturned, from which a small rill, after tracing its course with marvellous precision down the centre of the long table, fell into the neck of the unconscious Mark Clark, in a steady, monotonous drip, like the dripping of a stalactite in a cave.
Gabriel glanced hopelessly at the group, which, with one or-two exceptions, composed all the able-bodied men upon the farm. He saw at once that if the ricks were to be saved that night, or even the next morning, he must save them with his own hands.
A faint “ ting-ting" resounded from under Coggan's waistcoat. It was Coggan's watch striking the hour of two.
Oak went to the recumbent form of Matthew Moon, who usually undertook the rough thatching of the homestead, and shook him. The shaking was without effect.
Gabriel shouted in his ear, “ Where's your thatching-beetle and rickstick and spars ? ”
"Under the staddles," said Moon mechanically, with the unconscious promptness of a medium.
Gabriel let go his head, and it dropped upon the floor like a bowl. He then went to Susan Tall's husband.
“Where's the key of the granary ? " No answer.
The question was repeated, with the same result. To be shouted to at night was evidently less of a novelty to Susan Tall's husband than to Matthew Moon. Oak flung down Tall's head into the corner again and turned away.
To be just, the men were not greatly to blame for this painful and de. moralising termination to the evening's entertainment. Sergeant Troy had so strenuously insisted, glass in hand, that drinking should be the bond of their union, that those who wished to refuse hardly liked to be so unmannerly under the circumstances. Having from their youth up been entirely unaccustomed to any liquor stronger than cider or mild ale, it was no wonder that they had succumbed, one and all with extraordinary uniformity, after the lapse of about an hour.
Gabriel was greatly depressed. This debauch boded ill for that wilful and fascinating mistress whom the faithful man even now felt within him as the embodiment of all that was sweet and bright and hopeless.
He put out the expiring lights, that the barn might not be endangered, closed the door upon the men in their deep and oblivious sleep, and went again into the lone night. A hot breeze, as if breathed from the parted lips of some dragon about to swallow the globe, fanned him from the south, while directly opposite in the north rose a grim misshapen body of cloud, in the very teeth of the wind. So unnaturally did it rise that one could fancy it to be lifted by machinery from below. Meanwhile the faint cloudlets had flown back into the south-east corner of the sky, as if in terror of the large cloud, like a young brood gazed in upon by some monster.
Going on to the village, Oak ilung a small stone against the window of Laban Tall's bedroom, expecting Susan to open it; but nobody stirred. He went round to the back door, which had been left unfastened for Laban's entry, and passed in to the foot of the staircase.
“Mrs. Tall, I've come for the key of the granary, to get at the rick. cloths,” said Oak, in a stentorian voice.
“Is that you ?” said Mrs. Susan Tall, half awake. “ Yes,” said Gabriel.
“Come along to bed, do, you draw-latching rogue-keeping a body awake like this !”
" It isn't Laban—'tis Gabriel Oak. I want the key of the granary."
“ Gabriel! What in the name of fortune did you pretend to be Laban for?"
“I didn't. I thought you meant -"
“ Take it, then. 'Tis on the nail. People coming disturbing women at this time of night ought
Gabriel took the key, without waiting to hear the conclusion of the tirade. Ten minutes later his lonely figure might have been seen drag. ging four large waterproof coverings across the yard, and soon two of these heaps of treasure in grain were covered snug-two cloths to each. Two hundred pounds were secured. Three wheat-stacks remained open, and there were no more cloths. Oak looked under the staddles and found a fork. He mounted the third pile of wealth and began operating, adopting the plan of sloping the upper sheaves one over the other; and, in addition, filling the interstices with the material of some untied sheaves.
So far all was well. By this hurried contrivance Bathsheba's property in wheat was safe for at any rate a week or two, provided always that there was not much wind.
Next came the barley. This it was only possible to protect by systematic thatching. Time went on, and the moon vanished not to re-appear. It was the farewell of the ambassador previous to war. The night had a haggard look, like a sick thing; and there came finally an atter expiration of air from the whole heaven in the form of a slow breeze, which might have been likened to a death. And now nothing was heard in the yard but the dull thuds of the beetle which drove in the spars, and the rastle of the thatch in the intervals.
THE STORM: THE TWO TOGETHER.
A light flapped over the scene, as if reflected from phosphorescent wings crossing the sky, and a rumble filled the air. It was the first arrow from the approaching storm, and it fell wide.
The second peal was noisy, with comparatively little visible lightning. Gabriel saw a candle shining in Bathsheba's bedroom, and soon a shadow moved to and fro upon the blind.
Then there came a third flash. Manæuvres of a most extraordinary kind were going on in the vast firmamental hollows overhead. The lightning now was the colour of silver, and gleamed in the heavens like a mailed army. Rumbles became rattles. Gabriel from his elevatod position could see over the landscape for at least half-a-dozen miles in front. Every hedge, bush, and tree was distinct as in a line engraving. In a paddock in the same direction was a herd of heifers, and the forms of these were visible at this moment in the act of galloping about in the wildest and maddest confusion, flinging their heels and tails high into the air, their heads to earth. A poplar in the immediate foreground was like an ink stroke on burnished tin. Then the picture vanished, leaving a darkness so intense that Gabriel worked entirely by feeling with his bands.
He had stuck his ricking-rod, groom, or poignard, as it was indif. ferently called—a long iron lance, sharp at the extremity and polished by handling—into the stack to support the sheaves. A blue light appeared in the zenith, and in some indescribable manner flickered down near the top of the rod. It was the fourth of the larger flashes. A moment later and there was a smack-smart, clear, and short. Gabriel felt his position to be anything but a safe one, and he resolved to descend.
Not a drop of rain had fallen as yet. He wiped his weary brow, and looked again at the black forms of the unprotected stacks. Was his life 80 valuable to him, after all ? What were his prospects that he should be so chary of running risk, when important and urgent labour could not be carried on without such risk ? He resolved to stick to the stack. However, he took a precaution. Under the staddles was a long tethering chain, used to prevent the escape of errant horses. This he carried up the ladder, and sticking his rod through the clog at one end, allowed the other end of the chain to trail upon the ground. The spike attached to it he drove in. Under the shadow of this extemporized lightningconductor he felt himself comparatively safe.
Before Oak had laid his hands upon his tools again out leapt the fifth flasb, with the spring of a serpent and the shout of a fiend. It was green as an emerald, and the reverberation was stunning. What was this the light revealed to him ? In the open ground before him, as he looked over the ridge of the riek, was a dark and apparently female form. Could it be that of the only venturesome woman in the parish—Bathsheba ? The form moved on a step: then he could see no more.
“Is that you, ma'am ? ” said Gabriel, to the darkness.
“Oh, Gabriel l-and are you? I have come about them. The weather awoke me, and I thought of the corn. I am so distressed about it-can we save it anybow? I cannot find my husband. Is he with you ?”
“He is not here."
“ He promised that the stacks should be seen to, and now they are all neglected! Can I do anything to help ? Liddy is afraid to come out. Fancy finding you here at such an hour! Surely I can do something?"
“ You can bring up some reed-sheaves to me, one by one, ma'am; if you are not afraid to come up the ladder in the dark," said Gabriel. “Every moment is precious now, and that would save a good deal of time. It is not very dark when the lightning has been gone a bit.”
“I'll do anything!” she said, resolutely. She instantly took a sheaf upon her shoulder, clambered up close to his heels, placed it behind the rod, and descended for another. At her third ascent the rick suddenly brightened with the brazen glare of shining majolica-every knot in every straw was visible. On the slope in front of him appeared two human
shapes, black as jet. The rick lost its sheen—the shapes vanished. Gabriel turned his head. It had been the sixth flash which had come from the east behind him, and the two dark forms on the slope had been the shadows of himself and Bathsheba.
Then came the peal. It hardly was credible that such a heavenly light could be the parent of such a diabolical sound.
“How terrible !” she exclaimed, and clutched him by the sleeve. Gabriel turned, and steadied her on her aërial perch by holding her arm. At the same moment, while he was still reversed in his attitude, there was more light, and he saw as it were a copy of the tall poplar tree on the hill drawn in black on the wall of the barn. It was the shadow of that tree, thrown across by a secondary flash in the west.
The next flare came. Bathsheba was on the ground now, shouldering another sheaf, and she bore its dazzle without flinching-thunder and all—and again ascended with the load. There was then a silence everywhere for four or five minutes, and the crunch of the spars, as Gabriel hastily drove them in, could again be distinctly heard. He thought the crisis of the storm had passed. But there came a burst of light.
“Hold on!” said Gabriel, taking the sheaf from her shoulder, and grasping her arm again.
Heaven opened then, indeed. The flash was almost too novel for its inexpressibly dangerous nature to be at once realised, and Gabriel could only comprehend the magnificence of its beauty. It sprang from east, west, north, south. It was a perfect dance of death. The forms of skeletons appeared in the air, shaped with blue fire for bones—dancing, leaping, striding, racing around, and mingling altogether in unparalleled confusion. With these were intertwined undulating snakes of green. Behind these was a broad mass of lesser light. Simultaneously camo from every part of the tumbling sky what may be called a shout; since, though no shout ever came near it, it was more of the nature of a shout than of anything else earthly. In the meantime one of the grisly forms had alighted upon the point of Gabriel's rod, to run invisibly down it, down the chain, and into the earth, Gabriel was almost blinded, and he could feel Bathsheba's warm arm tremble in his hand-a sensation novel and thrilling enough ; but love, life, everything human, seemed small and trifling in such close juxtaposition with an infuriated universe.
Oak had hardly time to gather up these impressions into a thought, and to see how strangely the red feather of her hat shone in this light, when the tall tree on the hill before-mentioned seemed on fire to a white heat, and a new one among these terrible voices mingled with the last crash of those preceding. It was a stupefying blast, harsh and pitiless, and it fell upon their ears in a dead, flat blow, without that reverberation which lends the tones of a drum to more distant thunder. By the lustre reflected from every part of the earth and from the wide domical scoop above it, he saw that the tree was sliced down the whole length of its tall straight stem, a hage riband of bark being apparently flung off. The other portion