Far from the Madding Crowd, by Thomas Hardy

Chapter 20

Perplexity — Grinding the Shears — A Quarrel

“HE is so disinterested and kind to offer me all that I can desire,” Bathsheba mused.

Yet Farmer Boldwood, whether by nature kind or the reverse to kind, did not exercise kindness, here. The rarest offerings of the purest loves are but a self-indulgence, and no generosity at all.

Bathsheba, not being the least in love with him, was eventually able to look calmly at his offer. It was one which many women of her own station in the neighbourhood, and not a few of higher rank, would have been wild to accept and proud to publish. In every point of view, ranging from politic to passionate, it was desirable that she, a lonely girl, should marry, and marry this earnest, well-to-do, and respected man. He was close to her doors: his standing was sufficient: his qualities were even supererogatory. Had she felt, which she did not, any wish whatever for the married state in the abstract, she could not reasonably have rejected him, being a woman who frequently appealed to her understanding for deliverance from her whims. Boldwood as a means to marriage was unexceptionable: she esteemed and liked him, yet she did not want him. It appears that ordinary men take wives because possession is not possible without marriage, and that ordinary women accept husbands because marriage is not possible without possession; with totally differing aims the method is the same on both sides. But the understood incentive on the woman’s part was wanting here. Besides, Bathsheba’s position as absolute mistress of a farm and house was a novel one, and the novelty had not yet begun to wear off.

But a disquiet filled her which was somewhat to her credit, for it would have affected few. Beyond the mentioned reasons with which she combated her objections, she had a strong feeling that, having been the one who began the game, she ought in honesty to accept the consequences. Still the reluctance remained. She said in the same breath that it would be ungenerous not to marry Boldwood, and that she couldn’t do it to save her life.

Bathsheba’s was an impulsive nature under a deliberative aspect. An Elizabeth in brain and a Mary Stuart in spirit, she often performed actions of the greatest temerity with a manner of extreme discretion. Many of her thoughts were perfect syllogisms; unluckily they always remained thoughts. Only a few were irrational assumptions; but, unfortunately, they were the ones which most frequently grew into deeds.

The next day to that of the declaration she found Gabriel Oak at the bottom of her garden, grinding his shears for the sheep-shearing. All the surrounding cottages were more or less scenes of the same operation; the scurr of whetting spread into the sky from all parts of the village as from an armoury previous to a campaign. Peace and war kiss each other at their hours of preparation — sickles, scythes, shears, and pruning-hooks, ranking with swords, bayonets, and lances, in their common necessity for point and edge.

Cainy Ball turned the handle of Gabriel’s grindstone, his head performing a melancholy see-saw up and down with each turn of the wheel. Oak stood somewhat as Eros is represented when in the act of sharpening his arrows: his figure slightly bent, the weight of his body thrown over on the shears, and his head balanced side-ways, with a critical compression of the lips and contraction of the eyelids to crown the attitude.

His mistress came up and looked upon them in silence for a minute or two; then she said —

“Cain, go to the lower mead and catch the bay mare. I’ll turn the winch of the grindstone. I want to speak to you, Gabriel.”

Cain departed, and Bathsheba took the handle. Gabriel had glanced up in intense surprise, quelled its expression, and looked down again. Bathsheba turned the winch, and Gabriel applied the shears.

The peculiar motion involved in turning a wheel has a wonderful tendency to benumb the mind. It is a sort of attenuated variety of Ixion’s punishment, and contributes a dismal chapter to the history of goals. The brain gets muddled, the head grows heavy, and the body’s centre of gravity seems to settle by degrees in a leaden lump somewhere between the eyebrows and the crown. Bathsheba felt the unpleasant symptoms after two or three dozen turns.

“Will you turn, Gabriel, and let me hold the shears?” she said. “My head is in a whirl, and I can’t talk.”

Gabriel turned. Bathsheba then began, with some awkwardness, allowing her thoughts to stray occasionally from her story to attend to the shears, which required a little nicety in sharpening.

“I wanted to ask you if the men made any observations on my going behind the sedge with Mr. Boldwood yesterday?”

“Yes, they did,” said Gabriel. “You don’t hold the shears right, miss — I knew you wouldn’t know the way — hold like this.”

He relinquished the winch, and inclosing her two hands completely in his own (taking each as we sometimes slap a child’s hand in teaching him to write), grasped the shears with her. “Incline the edge so,” he said.

Hands and shears were inclined to suit the words, and held thus for a peculiarly long time by the instructor as he spoke.

“That will do,” exclaimed Bathsheba. “Loose my hands. I won’t have them held! Turn the winch.”

Gabriel freed her hands quietly, retired to his handle, and the grinding went on.

“Did the men think it odd?” she said again.

“Odd was not the idea, miss.”

“What did they say?”

“That Farmer Boldwood’s name and your own were likely to be flung over pulpit together before the year was out.”

“I thought so by the look of them! Why, there’s nothing in it. A more foolish remark was never made, and I want you to contradict it! that’s what I came for.”

Gabriel looked incredulous and sad, but between his moments of incredulity, relieved.

“They must have heard our conversation,” she continued.

“Well, then, Bathsheba!” said Oak, stopping the handle, and gazing into her face with astonishment.

“Miss Everdene, you mean,” she said, with dignity.

“I mean this, that if Mr. Boldwood really spoke of marriage, I bain’t going to tell a story and say he didn’t to please you. I have already tried to please you too much for my own good!”

Bathsheba regarded him with round-eyed perplexity. She did not know whether to pity him for disappointed love of her, or to be angry with him for having got over it — his tone being ambiguous.

“I said I wanted you just to mention that it was not true I was going to be married to him,” she murmured, with a slight decline in her assurance.

“I can say that to them if you wish, Miss Everdene. And I could likewise give an opinion to ‘ee on what you have done.”

“I daresay. But I don’t want your opinion.”

“I suppose not,” said Gabriel bitterly, and going on with his turning, his words rising and falling in a regular swell and cadence as he stooped or rose with the winch, which directed them, according to his position, perpendicularly into the earth, or horizontally along the garden, his eyes being fixed on a leaf upon the ground.

With Bathsheba a hastened act was a rash act; but, as does not always happen, time gained was prudence insured. It must be added, however, that time was very seldom gained. At this period the single opinion in the parish on herself and her doings that she valued as sounder than her own was Gabriel Oak’s. And the outspoken honesty of his character was such that on any subject even that of her love for, or marriage with, another man, the same disinterestedness of opinion might be calculated on, and be had for the asking. Thoroughly convinced of the impossibility of his own suit, a high resolve constrained him not to injure that of another. This is a lover’s most stoical virtue, as the lack of it is a lover’s most venial sin. Knowing he would reply truly she asked the question, painful as she must have known the subject would be. Such is the selfishness of some charming women. Perhaps it was some excuse for her thus torturing honesty to her own advantage, that she had absolutely no other sound judgment within easy reach.

“Well, what is your opinion of my conduct,” she said, quietly.

“That it is unworthy of any thoughtful, and meek, and comely woman.”

In an instant Bathsheba’s face coloured with the angry crimson of a danby sunset. But she forbore to utter this feeling, and the reticence of her tongue only made the loquacity of her face the more noticeable.

The next thing Gabriel did was to make a mistake.

“Perhaps you don’t like the rudeness of my reprimanding you, for I know it is rudeness; but I thought it would do good.”

She instantly replied sarcastically —

“On the contrary, my opinion of you is so low, that I see in your abuse the praise of discerning people!”

“I am glad you don’t mind it, for I said it honestly and with every serious meaning.”

“I see. But, unfortunately, when you try not to speak in jest you are amusing — just as when you wish to avoid seriousness you sometimes say a sensible word.”

It was a hard hit, but Bathsheba had unmistakably lost her temper, and on that account Gabriel had never in his life kept his own better. He said nothing. She then broke out —

“I may ask, I suppose, where in particular my unworthiness lies? In my not marrying you, perhaps!”

“Not by any means,” said Gabriel quietly. “I have long given up thinking of that matter.”

“Or wishing it, I suppose,” she said; and it was apparent that she expected an unhesitating denial of this supposition.

Whatever Gabriel felt, he coolly echoed her words —

“Or wishing it either.”

A woman may be treated with a bitterness which is sweet to her, and with a rudeness which is not offensive. Bathsheba would have submitted to an indignant chastisement for her levity had Gabriel protested that he was loving her at the same time; the impetuosity of passion unrequited is bearable, even if it stings and anathematizes there is a triumph in the humiliation, and a tenderness in the strife. This was what she had been expecting, and what she had not got. To be lectured because the lecturer saw her in the cold morning light of open-shuttered disillusion was exasperating. He had not finished, either. He continued in a more agitated voice:—

“My opinion is (since you ask it) that you are greatly to blame for playing pranks upon a man like Mr. Boldwood, merely as a pastime. Leading on a man you don’t care for is not a praiseworthy action. And even, Miss Everdene, if you seriously inclined towards him, you might have let him find it out in some way of true loving-kindness, and not by sending him a valentine’s letter.”

Bathsheba laid down the shears.

“I cannot allow any man to — to criticise my private Conduct!” she exclaimed. “Nor will I for a minute. So you’ll please leave the farm at the end of the week!”

It may have been a peculiarity — at any rate it was a fact — that when Bathsheba was swayed by an emotion of an earthly sort her lower lip trembled: when by a refined emotion, her upper or heavenward one. Her nether lip quivered now.

“Very well, so I will,” said Gabriel calmly. He had been held to her by a beautiful thread which it pained him to spoil by breaking, rather than by a chain he could not break. “I should be even better pleased to go at once,” he added.

“Go at once then, in Heaven’s name!” said she, her eyes flashing at his, though never meeting them. “Don’t let me see your face any more.”

“Very well, Miss Everdene — so it shall be.”

And he took his shears and went away from her in placid dignity, as Moses left the presence of Pharaoh.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 19:22