“Ah, Miss Everdene!” said the sergeant, touching his diminutive cap. “Little did I think it was you I was speaking to the other night. And yet, if I had reflected, the ‘Queen of the Corn-market’ (truth is truth at any hour of the day or night, and I heard you so named in Casterbridge yesterday), the ‘Queen of the Corn-market.’ I say, could be no other woman. I step across now to beg your forgiveness a thousand times for having been led by my feelings to express myself too strongly for a stranger. To be sure I am no stranger to the place—I am Sergeant Troy, as I told you, and I have assisted your uncle in these fields no end of times when I was a lad. I have been doing the same for you to-day.”
“I suppose I must thank you for that, Sergeant Troy,” said the Queen of the Corn-market, in an indifferently grateful tone.
The sergeant looked hurt and sad. “Indeed you must not, Miss Everdene,” he said. “Why could you think such a thing necessary?”
“I am glad it is not.”
“Why? if I may ask without offence.”
“Because I don’t much want to thank you for anything.”
“I am afraid I have made a hole with my tongue that my heart will never mend. O these intolerable times: that ill-luck should follow a man for honestly telling a woman she is beautiful! ‘Twas the most I said—you must own that; and the least I could say—that I own myself.”
“There is some talk I could do without more easily than money.”
“Indeed. That remark is a sort of digression.”
“No. It means that I would rather have your room than your company.”
“And I would rather have curses from you than kisses from any other woman; so I’ll stay here.”
Bathsheba was absolutely speechless. And yet she could not help feeling that the assistance he was rendering forbade a harsh repulse.
“Well,” continued Troy, “I suppose there is a praise which is rudeness, and that may be mine. At the same time there is a treatment which is injustice, and that may be yours. Because a plain blunt man, who has never been taught concealment, speaks out his mind without exactly intending it, he’s to be snapped off like the son of a sinner.”
“Indeed there’s no such case between us,” she said, turning away. “I don’t allow strangers to be bold and impudent—even in praise of me.”
“Ah—it is not the fact but the method which offends you,” he said, carelessly. “But I have the sad satisfaction of knowing that my words, whether pleasing or offensive, are unmistakably true. Would you have had me look at you, and tell my acquaintance that you are quite a common-place woman, to save you the embarrassment of being stared at if they come near you? Not I. I couldn’t tell any such ridiculous lie about a beauty to encourage a single woman in England in too excessive a modesty.”
“It is all pretence—what you are saying!” exclaimed Bathsheba, laughing in spite of herself at the sly method. “You have a rare invention, Sergeant Troy. Why couldn’t you have passed by me that night, and said nothing?—that was all I meant to reproach you for.”
“Because I wasn’t going to. Half the pleasure of a feeling lies in being able to express it on the spur of the moment, and I let out mine. It would have been just the same if you had been the reverse person—ugly and old—I should have exclaimed about it in the same way.”
“How long is it since you have been so afflicted with strong feeling, then?”
“Oh, ever since I was big enough to know loveliness from deformity.”
“‘Tis to be hoped your sense of the difference you speak of doesn’t stop at faces, but extends to morals as well.”
“I won’t speak of morals or religion—my own or anybody else’s. Though perhaps I should have been a very good Christian if you pretty women hadn’t made me an idolater.”
Bathsheba moved on to hide the irrepressible dimplings of merriment. Troy followed, whirling his crop.
“But—Miss Everdene—you do forgive me?”
“You say such things.”
“I said you were beautiful, and I’ll say so still; for, by G—— so you are! The most beautiful ever I saw, or may I fall dead this instant! Why, upon my ——”
“Don’t—don’t! I won’t listen to you—you are so profane!” she said, in a restless state between distress at hearing him and a penchant to hear more.
“I again say you are a most fascinating woman. There’s nothing remarkable in my saying so, is there? I’m sure the fact is evident enough. Miss Everdene, my opinion may be too forcibly let out to please you, and, for the matter of that, too insignificant to convince you, but surely it is honest, and why can’t it be excused?”
“Because it—it isn’t a correct one,” she femininely murmured.
“Oh, fie—fie! Am I any worse for breaking the third of that Terrible Ten than you for breaking the ninth?”
“Well, it doesn’t seem quite true to me that I am fascinating,” she replied evasively.
“Not so to you: then I say with all respect that, if so, it is owing to your modesty, Miss Everdene. But surely you must have been told by everybody of what everybody notices? And you should take their words for it.”
“They don’t say so exactly.”
“Oh yes, they must!”
“Well, I mean to my face, as you do,” she went on, allowing herself to be further lured into a conversation that intention had rigorously forbidden.
“But you know they think so?”
“No—that is—I certainly have heard Liddy say they do, but—” She paused.
Capitulation—that was the purport of the simple reply, guarded as it was—capitulation, unknown to herself. Never did a fragile tailless sentence convey a more perfect meaning. The careless sergeant smiled within himself, and probably too the devil smiled from a loop-hole in Tophet, for the moment was the turning-point of a career. Her tone and mien signified beyond mistake that the seed which was to lift the foundation had taken root in the chink: the remainder was a mere question of time and natural changes.
“There the truth comes out!” said the soldier, in reply. “Never tell me that a young lady can live in a buzz of admiration without knowing something about it. Ah, well, Miss Everdene, you are—pardon my blunt way—you are rather an injury to our race than otherwise.”
“How—indeed?” she said, opening her eyes.
“Oh, it is true enough. I may as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb (an old country saying, not of much account, but it will do for a rough soldier), and so I will speak my mind, regardless of your pleasure, and without hoping or intending to get your pardon. Why, Miss Everdene, it is in this manner that your good looks may do more harm than good in the world.” The sergeant looked down the mead in critical abstraction. “Probably some one man on an average falls in love with each ordinary woman. She can marry him: he is content, and leads a useful life. Such women as you a hundred men always covet—your eyes will bewitch scores on scores into an unavailing fancy for you—you can only marry one of that many. Out of these say twenty will endeavour to drown the bitterness of despised love in drink; twenty more will mope away their lives without a wish or attempt to make a mark in he world, because they have no ambition apart from their attachment to you; twenty more—the susceptible person myself possibly among them—will be always draggling after you, getting where they may just see you, doing desperate things. Men are such constant fools! The rest may try to get over their passion with more or less success. But all these men will be saddened. And not only those ninety-nine men, but the ninety-nine women they might have married are saddened with them. There’s my tale. That’s why I say that a woman so charming as yourself, Miss Everdene, is hardly a blessing to her race.”
The handsome sergeant’s features were during this speech as rigid and stern as John Knox’s in addressing his gay young queen.
Seeing she made no reply, he said, “Do you read French?”
“No; I began, but when I got to the verbs, father died,” she said simply.
“I do—when I have an opportunity, which latterly has not been often (my mother was a Parisienne)—and there’s a proverb they have, Qui aime bien, châtie bien—’He chastens who loves well.’ Do you understand me?”
“Ah!” she replied, and there was even a little tremulousness in the usually cool girl’s voice; “if you can only fight half as winningly as you can talk, you are able to make a pleasure of a bayonet wound!” And then poor Bathsheba instantly perceived her slip in making this admission: in hastily trying to retrieve it, she went from bad to worse. “Don’t, however, suppose that I derive any pleasure from what you tell me.”
“I know you do not—I know it perfectly,” said Troy, with much hearty conviction on the exterior of his face: and altering the expression to moodiness; “when a dozen men are ready to speak tenderly to you, and give the admiration you deserve without adding the warning you need, it stands to reason that my poor rough-and-ready mixture of praise and blame cannot convey much pleasure. Fool as I may be, I am not so conceited as to suppose that!”
“I think you—are conceited, nevertheless,” said Bathsheba, looking askance at a reed she was fitfully pulling with one hand, having lately grown feverish under the soldier’s system of procedure—not because the nature of his cajolery was entirely unperceived, but because its vigour was overwhelming.
“I would not own it to anybody else—nor do I exactly to you. Still, there might have been some self-conceit in my foolish supposition the other night. I knew that what I said in admiration might be an opinion too often forced upon you to give any pleasure, but I certainly did think that the kindness of your nature might prevent you judging an uncontrolled tongue harshly—which you have done—and thinking badly of me and wounding me this morning, when I am working hard to save your hay.”
“Well, you need not think more of that: perhaps you did not mean to be rude to me by speaking out your mind: indeed, I believe you did not,” said the shrewd woman, in painfully innocent earnest. “And I thank you for giving help here. But—but mind you don’t speak to me again in that way, or in any other, unless I speak to you.”
“Oh, Miss Bathsheba! That is too hard!”
“No, it isn’t. Why is it?”
“You will never speak to me; for I shall not be here long. I am soon going back again to the miserable monotony of drill—and perhaps our regiment will be ordered out soon. And yet you take away the one little ewe-lamb of pleasure that I have in this dull life of mine. Well, perhaps generosity is not a woman’s most marked characteristic.”
“When are you going from here?” she asked, with some interest.
“In a month.”
“But how can it give you pleasure to speak to me?”
“Can you ask Miss Everdene—knowing as you do—what my offence is based on?”
“If you do care so much for a silly trifle of that kind, then, I don’t mind doing it,” she uncertainly and doubtingly answered. “But you can’t really care for a word from me? you only say so—I think you only say so.”
“That’s unjust—but I won’t repeat the remark. I am too gratified to get such a mark of your friendship at any price to cavil at the tone. I do, Miss Everdene, care for it. You may think a man foolish to want a mere word—just a good morning. Perhaps he is—I don’t know. But you have never been a man looking upon a woman, and that woman yourself.”
“Then you know nothing of what such an experience is like—and Heaven forbid that you ever should!”
“Nonsense, flatterer! What is it like? I am interested in knowing.”
“Put shortly, it is not being able to think, hear, or look in any direction except one without wretchedness, nor there without torture.”
“Ah, sergeant, it won’t do—you are pretending!” she said, shaking her head. “Your words are too dashing to be true.”
“I am not, upon the honour of a soldier.”
“But why is it so?—Of course I ask for mere pastime.”
“Because you are so distracting—and I am so distracted.”
“You look like it.”
“I am indeed.”
“Why, you only saw me the other night!”
“That makes no difference. The lightning works instantaneously. I loved you then, at once—as I do now.”
Bathsheba surveyed him curiously, from the feet upward, as high as she liked to venture her glance, which was not quite so high as his eyes.
“You cannot and you don’t,” she said demurely. “There is no such sudden feeling in people. I won’t listen to you any longer. Hear me, I wish I knew what o’clock it is—I am going—I have wasted too much time here already!”
The sergeant looked at his watch and told her. “What, haven’t you a watch, miss?” he inquired.
“I have not just at present—I am about to get a new one.”
“No. You shall be given one. Yes—you shall. A gift, Miss Everdene—a gift.”
And before she knew what the young man was intending, a heavy gold watch was in her hand.
“It is an unusually good one for a man like me to possess,” he quietly said. “That watch has a history. Press the spring and open the back.”
She did so.
“What do you see?”
“A crest and a motto.”
“A coronet with five points, and beneath, Cedit amor rebus—’Love yields to circumstance.’ It’s the motto of the Earls of Severn. That watch belonged to the last lord, and was given to my mother’s husband, a medical man, for his use till I came of age, when it was to be given to me. It was all the fortune that ever I inherited. That watch has regulated imperial interests in its time—the stately ceremonial, the courtly assignation, pompous travels, and lordly sleeps. Now it is yours.”
“But, Sergeant Troy, I cannot take this—I cannot!” she exclaimed, with round-eyed wonder. “A gold watch! What are you doing? Don’t be such a dissembler!”
The sergeant retreated to avoid receiving back his gift, which she held out persistently towards him. Bathsheba followed as he retired.
“Keep it—do, Miss Everdene—keep it!” said the erratic child of impulse. “The fact of your possessing it makes it worth ten times as much to me. A more plebeian one will answer my purpose just as well, and the pleasure of knowing whose heart my old one beats against—well, I won’t speak of that. It is in far worthier hands than ever it has been in before.”
“But indeed I can’t have it!” she said, in a perfect simmer of distress. “Oh, how can you do such a thing; that is if you really mean it! Give me your dead father’s watch, and such a valuable one! You should not be so reckless, indeed, Sergeant Troy!”
“I loved my father: good; but better, I love you more. That’s how I can do it,” said the sergeant, with an intonation of such exquisite fidelity to nature that it was evidently not all acted now. Her beauty, which, whilst it had been quiescent, he had praised in jest, had in its animated phases moved him to earnest; and though his seriousness was less than she imagined, it was probably more than he imagined himself.
Bathsheba was brimming with agitated bewilderment, and she said, in half-suspicious accents of feeling, “Can it be! Oh, how can it be, that you care for me, and so suddenly! You have seen so little of me: I may not be really so—so nice-looking as I seem to you. Please, do take it; Oh, do! I cannot and will not have it. Believe me, your generosity is too great. I have never done you a single kindness, and why should you be so kind to me?”
A factitious reply had been again upon his lips, but it was again suspended, and he looked at her with an arrested eye. The truth was, that as she now stood—excited, wild, and honest as the day—her alluring beauty bore out so fully the epithets he had bestowed upon it that he was quite startled at his temerity in advancing them as false. He said mechanically, “Ah, why?” and continued to look at her.
“And my workfolk see me following you about the field, and are wondering. Oh, this is dreadful!” she went on, unconscious of the transmutation she was effecting.
“I did not quite mean you to accept it at first, for it was my one poor patent of nobility,” he broke out, bluntly; “but, upon my soul, I wish you would now. Without any shamming, come! Don’t deny me the happiness of wearing it for my sake? But you are too lovely even to care to be kind as others are.”
“No, no; don’t say so! I have reasons for reserve which I cannot explain.”
“Let it be, then, let it be,” he said, receiving back the watch at last; “I must be leaving you now. And will you speak to me for these few weeks of my stay?”
“Indeed I will. Yet, I don’t know if I will! Oh, why did you come and disturb me so!”
“Perhaps in setting a gin, I have caught myself. Such things have happened. Well, will you let me work in your fields?” he coaxed.
“Yes, I suppose so; if it is any pleasure to you.”
“Miss Everdene, I thank you.”
The sergeant brought his hand to the cap on the slope of his head, saluted, and returned to the distant group of haymakers.
Bathsheba could not face the haymakers now. Her heart erratically flitting hither and thither from perplexed excitement, hot, and almost tearful, she retreated homeward, murmuring, “Oh, what have I done! What does it mean! I wish I knew how much of it was true!”