The first public evidence of Bathsheba’s decision to be a farmer in her own person and by proxy no more was her appearance the following market-day in the cornmarket at Casterbridge.
The low though extensive hall, supported by beams and pillars, and latterly dignified by the name of Corn Exchange, was thronged with hot men who talked among each other in twos and threes, the speaker of the minute looking sideways into his auditor’s face and concentrating his argument by a contraction of one eyelid during delivery. The greater number carried in their hands ground-ash saplings, using them partly as walking-sticks and partly for poking up pigs, sheep, neighbours with their backs turned, and restful things in general, which seemed to require such treatment in the course of their peregrinations. During conversations each subjected his sapling to great varieties of usage—bending it round his back, forming an arch of it between his two hands, overweighting it on the ground till it reached nearly a semicircle; or perhaps it was hastily tucked under the arm whilst the sample-bag was pulled forth and a handful of corn poured into the palm, which, after criticism, was flung upon the floor, an issue of events perfectly well known to half-a-dozen acute town-bred fowls which had as usual crept into the building unobserved, and waited the fulfilment of their anticipations with a high-stretched neck and oblique eye.
Among these heavy yeomen a feminine figure glided, the single one of her sex that the room contained. She was prettily and even daintily dressed. She moved between them as a chaise between carts, was heard after them as a romance after sermons, was felt among them like a breeze among furnaces. It had required a little determination—far more than she had at first imagined—to take up a position here, for at her first entry the lumbering dialogues had ceased, nearly every face had been turned towards her, and those that were already turned rigidly fixed there.
Two or three only of the farmers were personally known to Bathsheba, and to these she had made her way. But if she was to be the practical woman she had intended to show herself, business must be carried on, introductions or none, and she ultimately acquired confidence enough to speak and reply boldly to men merely known to her by hearsay. Bathsheba too had her sample-bags, and by degrees adopted the professional pour into the hand—holding up the grains in her narrow palm for inspection, in perfect Casterbridge manner.
Something in the exact arch of her upper unbroken row of teeth, and in the keenly pointed corners of her red mouth when, with parted lips, she somewhat defiantly turned up her face to argue a point with a tall man, suggested that there was potentiality enough in that lithe slip of humanity for alarming exploits of sex, and daring enough to carry them out. But her eyes had a softness—invariably a softness—which, had they not been dark, would have seemed mistiness; as they were, it lowered an expression that might have been piercing to simple clearness.
Strange to say of a woman in full bloom and vigor, she always allowed her interlocutors to finish their statements before rejoining with hers. In arguing on prices, she held to her own firmly, as was natural in a dealer, and reduced theirs persistently, as was inevitable in a woman. But there was an elasticity in her firmness which removed it from obstinacy, as there was a naïveté in her cheapening which saved it from meanness.
Those of the farmers with whom she had no dealings (by far the greater part) were continually asking each other, “Who is she?” The reply would be—
“Farmer Everdene’s niece; took on Weatherbury Upper Farm; turned away the baily, and swears she’ll do everything herself.”
The other man would then shake his head.
“Yes, ’tis a pity she’s so headstrong,” the first would say. “But we ought to be proud of her here—she lightens up the old place. ‘Tis such a shapely maid, however, that she’ll soon get picked up.”
It would be ungallant to suggest that the novelty of her engagement in such an occupation had almost as much to do with the magnetism as had the beauty of her face and movements. However, the interest was general, and this Saturday’s début in the forum, whatever it may have been to Bathsheba as the buying and selling farmer, was unquestionably a triumph to her as the maiden. Indeed, the sensation was so pronounced that her instinct on two or three occasions was merely to walk as a queen among these gods of the fallow, like a little sister of a little Jove, and to neglect closing prices altogether.
The numerous evidences of her power to attract were only thrown into greater relief by a marked exception. Women seem to have eyes in their ribbons for such matters as these. Bathsheba, without looking within a right angle of him, was conscious of a black sheep among the flock.
It perplexed her first. If there had been a respectable minority on either side, the case would have been most natural. If nobody had regarded her, she would have taken the matter indifferently—such cases had occurred. If everybody, this man included, she would have taken it as a matter of course—people had done so before. But the smallness of the exception made the mystery.
She soon knew thus much of the recusant’s appearance. He was a gentlemanly man, with full and distinctly outlined Roman features, the prominences of which glowed in the sun with a bronze-like richness of tone. He was erect in attitude, and quiet in demeanour. One characteristic pre-eminently marked him—dignity.
Apparently he had some time ago reached that entrance to middle age at which a man’s aspect naturally ceases to alter for the term of a dozen years or so; and, artificially, a woman’s does likewise. Thirty-five and fifty were his limits of variation—he might have been either, or anywhere between the two.
It may be said that married men of forty are usually ready and generous enough to fling passing glances at any specimen of moderate beauty they may discern by the way. Probably, as with persons playing whist for love, the consciousness of a certain immunity under any circumstances from that worst possible ultimate, the having to pay, makes them unduly speculative. Bathsheba was convinced that this unmoved person was not a married man.
When marketing was over, she rushed off to Liddy, who was waiting for her beside the yellow gig in which they had driven to town. The horse was put in, and on they trotted—Bathsheba’s sugar, tea, and drapery parcels being packed behind, and expressing in some indescribable manner, by their colour, shape, and general lineaments, that they were that young lady-farmer’s property, and the grocer’s and draper’s no more.
“I’ve been through it, Liddy, and it is over. I shan’t mind it again, for they will all have grown accustomed to seeing me there; but this morning it was as bad as being married—eyes everywhere!”
“I knowed it would be,” Liddy said. “Men be such a terrible class of society to look at a body.”
“But there was one man who had more sense than to waste his time upon me.” The information was put in this form that Liddy might not for a moment suppose her mistress was at all piqued. “A very good-looking man,” she continued, “upright; about forty, I should think. Do you know at all who he could be?”
Liddy couldn’t think.
“Can’t you guess at all?” said Bathsheba with some disappointment.
“I haven’t a notion; besides, ’tis no difference, since he took less notice of you than any of the rest. Now, if he’d taken more, it would have mattered a great deal.”
Bathsheba was suffering from the reverse feeling just then, and they bowled along in silence. A low carriage, bowling along still more rapidly behind a horse of unimpeachable breed, overtook and passed them.
“Why, there he is!” she said.
Liddy looked. “That! That’s Farmer Boldwood—of course ’tis—the man you couldn’t see the other day when he called.”
“Oh, Farmer Boldwood,” murmured Bathsheba, and looked at him as he outstripped them. The farmer had never turned his head once, but with eyes fixed on the most advanced point along the road, passed as unconsciously and abstractedly as if Bathsheba and her charms were thin air.
“He’s an interesting man—don’t you think so?” she remarked.
“O yes, very. Everybody owns it,” replied Liddy.
“I wonder why he is so wrapt up and indifferent, and seemingly so far away from all he sees around him.”
“It is said—but not known for certain—that he met with some bitter disappointment when he was a young man and merry. A woman jilted him, they say.”
“People always say that—and we know very well women scarcely ever jilt men; ’tis the men who jilt us. I expect it is simply his nature to be so reserved.”
“Simply his nature—I expect so, miss—nothing else in the world.”
“Still, ’tis more romantic to think he has been served cruelly, poor thing’! Perhaps, after all, he has!”
“Depend upon it he has. Oh yes, miss, he has! I feel he must have.”
“However, we are very apt to think extremes of people. I shouldn’t wonder after all if it wasn’t a little of both—just between the two—rather cruelly used and rather reserved.”
“Oh dear no, miss—I can’t think it between the two!”
“That’s most likely.”
“Well, yes, so it is. I am convinced it is most likely. You may take my word, miss, that that’s what’s the matter with him.”