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remained erect, and revealed the bared surface as a strip of white down the front. The lightning had struck the tree. A sulphuroas smell filled the air: then all was silent, and black as a cave in Hinnom.
“We had a narrow escape !” said Gabriel hurriedly. “You had better go down."
Bathsheba said nothing ; but he could distinctly hear her rhythmical pants, and the recurrent rustle of the sheaf beside her in response to her frightened pulsations. She descended the ladder, and, on second thoughts, he followed her. The darkness was now impenetrable by the sharpest vision. They both stood still at the bottom, side by side. Bathsheba appeared to think only of the weather-Oak thought only of her just then. At last he said,
“ The storm seems to have passed now, at any rate.”
“I think so too,” said Bathsheba. “Though there are multitudes of gleams, look !"
The sky was now filled with an incessant light, frequent repetition melting into complete continuity, as an unbroken sound results from the successive strokes on a gong.
“Nothing serious," said he. “I cannot understand no rain falling. But, heaven be praised, it is all the better for us. I am now going up again."
“ Gabriel, you are kinder than I deserve! I will stay and help you yet. 0, why are not some of the others here!'
"They would have been here if they could," said Oak, in a hesitating way.
“O, I know it all—all,” she said, adding slowly: “They are all asleep in the barn, in a drunken sleep, and my husband among them. That's it, is it not ? Don't think I am a timid woman, and can't endure things."
“I am not certain," said Gabriel. “ I will go and see.”
He crossed to the barn, leaving her there alone. He looked through the chinks of the door. All was in total darkness, as he had left it, and there still arose, as at the former time, the steady buzz of many snores.
He felt a zephyr curling about his cheek, and turned. It was Bathsheba’s breath-she had followed him, and was looking into the same chink.
He endeavoured to put off the immediate and painful subject of their thoughts by remarking gently, “If you'll come back again, missma'am, and hand up a few more; it would save much time.”
Then Oak went back again, ascended to the top, stepped off the ladder for greater expedition, and went on thatching. She followed, but without a sheaf.
“Gabriel," she said, in a strange and impressive voice.
Oak looked up at her. She had not spoken since he left the barn. The soft and continual shimmer of the dying lightning showed a marble face high against the black sky of the opposite quarter. Bathsheba was
sitting almost on the apex of the stack, her feet gathered up beneath her, and resting on the top round of the ladder.
“Yes, mistress," he said.
“I suppose you thought that when I galloped away to Bath that night it was on purpose to be married ?"
"I did at last-not at first," he answered, somewhat surprised at the abruptness with which this new subject was broached.
“And others thought so, too ? ”
And you blamed me for it?" “ Well-a little."
“I thought so. Now, I care a little for your good opinion, and I want to explain something-I have longed to do it ever since I returned, and you looked so gravely at me. For if I were to die--and I may die soon-it would be dreadful that you should always think mistakingly of me. Now, listen."
Gabriel ceased his rustling.
"I went to Bath that night in the full intention of breaking off my engagement to Mr. Troy. It was owing to circumstances which occurred after I got there that, that we were married. Now, do you see the matter in a new light?”
"I must, I suppose, say more, now that I have begun. And perhaps it's no harm, for you are certainly under no delusion that I ever loved you, or that I can have any object in speaking, more than that object I have mentioned. Well, I was alone in a strange city, and the horse was lame. And at last I didn't know what to do. I saw, when it was too late, that scandal might seize hold of me for meeting him alone in that way. But I was coming away, when he suddenly said he had that day seen a woman more beautiful than I, and that his constancy could not be counted on unless I at once became his. .... And I was grieved and troubled. ... She cleared her voice, and waited a moment, as if to gather breath. “And then, between jealousy and distraction, I married him!” she whispered, with desperate impetuosity.
Gabriel made no reply.
“He was not to blame, for it was perfectly true about— about his seeing somebody else," she quickly added. “And now I don't wish for a single remark from you upon the subject-indeed I forbid it. I only wanted you to know that misunderstood bit of my history before a time comes when you could never know it.--You want some more sheaves ?”
She went down the ladder, and the work proceeded. Gabriel soon perceived a languor in the movements of his mistress up and down, and he said to her gently as a mother,
“ I think you had better go indoors now, you are tired. I can finish the rest alone. If the wind does not change the rain is likely to keep off.”
“If I am useless I will go," said Bathsheba, in a flagging cadence. “But oh, if your life should be lost !”
“You are not useless; but I would rather not tire you longer. You have done well.”
“And you better!" she said, gratefully. " Thank you for your devotion, a thousand times, Gabriel! Good-night-I know you are doing your very best for me."
She diminished in the gloom, and vanished, and he heard the latch of the gate fall as she passed through. He worked in a reverie now, musing upon her story, and upon the contradictoriness of that femi. nine heart which had caused her to speak more warmly to him to-night than she ever had done whilst unmarried and free to speak as warmly as she chose.
He was disturbed in his meditation by a grating noise from the coach-house. It was the vane on the roof turning round, and this change in the wind was the signal for a disastrous rain.
RAIN: ONE SOLITARY MEETS ANOTHER.
It was now five o'clock, and the dawn was promising to break in hues of drab and ash.
The air changed its temperature and stirred itself more vigorously. Cool elastic breezes coursed in transparent eddies round Oak's face. The wind shifted yet a point or two and blew stronger. In ten minutes every wind of heaven seemed to be roaming at large. Some of the thatching on the wheat-stacks was now whirled fantastically aloft, and had to be replaced and weighted with some rails that lay near at hand. This done, Oak slaved away again at the barley. A huge drop of rain smote his face, the wind snarled round every corner, the trees rocked to the bases of their trunks, and the twigs clashed in strife. Driving in spars at any point and on any system inch by inch he covered more and more safely from ruin this distracting impersonation of seven hundred pounds. The rain came on in earnest, and Oak soon felt the water to be tracking cold and clammy routes down his back. Ultimately he was reduced well-nigh to a homogeneous sop, and a decoction of his person trickled down and stood in a pool at the foot of the ladder. The rain stretched obliquely through the dull atmosphere in liquid spines, unbroken in continuity between their beginnings in the clouds and their points in him.
Oak suddenly remembered that eight months before this time he had been fighting against fire in the same spot as desperately as he was fighting against water now—and for a futile love of the same woman. As for her
But Oak was generous and true, and dismissed his reflections.
It was about seven o'clock in the dark leaden morning when Gabriel came down from the last stack, and thankfully exclaimed, “ It is done !" He was drenched, weary, and sad; and yet not so sad as drenched and weary, for he was cheered by a sense of success in a good cause.
Faint sounds came from the barn, and he looked that way. Figures came singly and in pairs through the doors—all walking awkwardly, and abashed, save the foremost, who wore a red jacket, and advanced with his hands in his pockets, whistling. The others shambled after with a conscience-stricken air: the whole procession was not unlike Flaxman's group of the suitors tottering on towards the infernal regions under the conduct of Mercury. The gnarled shapes passed into the village, Troy their leader entering the farmhouse. Not a single one of them had turned his face to the ricks, or apparently bestowed one thought upon their condition. Soon Oak too went homeward, by a different route from theirs. In front of him against the wet glazed surface of the lane he saw a person walking yet more slowly than himself under an umbrella. The man turned and apparently started : he was Boldwood.
“How are you this morning, sir ? ” said Oak.
“Yes, it is a wet day.-0 I am well, very well I thank you : quite well.”
“I am glad to hear it, sir.”
Boldwood seemed to awake to the present by degrees. “You look tired and ill, Oak," he said then, desultorily regarding his companion.
"I am tired. You look strangely altered, sir."
"I? Not a bit of it: I am well enough. What put that into your head?”
“I thought you didn't look quite so topping as you used to, that was all."
“Indeed, then you are mistaken," said Beldwood, shortly. "Nothing hurts me. My constitution is an iron one."
“I've been working hard to get our ricks covered, and was barely in time. Never had such a struggle in my life . . . Yours of course are safe, sir."
“O yes.” Boldwood added after an interval of silence, “What did you ask, Oak ?"
" Your ricks are all covered before this time."
They are not." “ Those under the hedge ?” " No. I forgot to tell the thatcher to set about it.” “ Nor the little one by the stile ?” “Nor the little one by the stile. I overlooked the ricks this year.” " Then not a tenth of your corn will come to measure, sir.” " Possibly not." “Overlooked them," repeated Gabriel slowly to himself. It is difficult
to describe the intensely dramatic effect that announcement had upon Oak at such a moment. All the night he had been feeling that the reglect he was labouring to repair was abnormal and isolated-the only instance of the kind within the circuit of the country. Yet at this very time, within the same parish, a greater waste had been going on, uncomplained of and disregarded. A few months earlier Boldwood's forgetting his husbandry would bave been as preposterous an idea as a sailor forgetting he was in & ship. Oak was just thinking that whatever he himself might have suffered from Bathsheba's marriage, here was a man who had suffered more, when Boldwood spoke in a changed voice—that of one who yearned to make a confidence and relieve his heart by an outpouring.
“Oak, you know as well as I that things have gone wrong with me lately. I may as well own it. I was going to get a little settled in life ; but in some way my plan bas come to nothing.”
“ I thought my mistress would have married you," said Gabriel, not knowing enough of the full depths of Boldwood's love to keep silence on the farmer's account, and determined not to evade discipline by doing so on his own. “ However, it is so sometimes, and nothing happens that we expect,” he added, with the repose of a man whom misfortune had inured rather than subdued.
“I dare say I am a joke about the parish," said Boldwood, as if the subject came irresistibly to his tongue, and with a miserable lightness meant to express his indifference. " O no—I don't think that."
- But the real truth of the matter is that there was not, as some fancy, any jilting on-her part. No engagement ever existed between me and Miss Everdene. People say so, but it is untrue : she never promised me!" Boldwood stood still now and turned his wild face to Oak. “O Gabriel,” he continued, “I am weak and foolish, and I don't know what, and I can't fend off my miserable grief! .... I had some faint belief in the mercy of God till I lost that woman. Yes, he prepared a gourd to shade me, and like the prophet I thanked him and was glad. But the next day he prepared a worm to smite the gourd, and wither it; and I feel it is better to die than to live."
A silence followed. Boldwood aroused himself from the momentary mood of confidence into which he had drifted, and walked on again, resuming bis usual reserve.
“ No, Gabriel,” he resumed with a carelessness which was like the smile on the countenance of a skull; “it was made more of by other people than ever it was by us. I do feel a little regret occasionally, but 110 woman ever had power over me for any length of time. Well, goodmorning. I can trust you not to mention to others what has passed between us two here."