At the malthouse the men were discussing Bathsheba. ‘How's she getting on without a farm manager？’the old maltster asked the younger men.
‘She can't manage the farm alone，’replied Jacob，‘and she won't listen to our advice. Proud，she is. I've often said it，’
‘You have，Jacob，you have，that's true，’agreed little Joseph Poorgrass.
‘But she's intelligent，’said Billy Smallbury，‘and must have some common sense. ’
‘It seems her old uncle's furniture wasn't good enough for her，’said the maltster‘I hear she's bought new beds，chairs and a piano！If she's a farmer，why does she want a piano？ ’
Just then they heard a heavy footstep outside，and a voice called，‘Neighbours，can I bring a few lambs in there？’
‘Of course，shepherd，’they all replied.
Gabriel appeared in the doorway，his cheeks red and his healthy face shining. On his shoulders were four half－dead lambs，which he put down carefully，close to the fire.
‘I haven't got a shepherd's hut here，as I used to have at Norcombe，’he explained. ‘These new lambs would die if I couldn't keep them warm for a while. It's very kind of you，maltster，to let me bring them in here. ’
‘We've been talking of the mistress，and her strange behaviour，shepherd，’said the maltster.
‘What have you been saying about her？’asked Gabriel sharply，turning to the others. ‘I suppose you've been speak- ing against her？’he added angrily to Joseph Poorgrass.
‘No，no，not a word，’said Joseph，trembling and blushing with terror.
‘well，look here，neighbours. ’Gabriel，although normally one of the quietest and most gentle men on earth，had sudden－ly become aggressive. ‘The first man I hear saying anything bad about our mistress will receive this in his face，’and he banged his great heavy hand down on the maltster's table.
‘Now don't get so angry，shepherd，and sit down！’said Jacob.
‘We hear you're a very clever man，shepherd，’added Joseph Poorgrass from behind the maltster's bed，where he had been hiding. ‘We all wish we were as clever as you，don't we，neighbours？’There was general agreement.
‘I think mistress ought to have made you her farm manager，you're so suitable for the job，’continued Joseph. He could see that Gabriel was no longer angry.
‘I don't mind confessing I was hoping to be her farm man－ ager，’said Gabriel in his honest way. ‘But Miss Everdene can do as she likes，and she's chosen to manage her own farm—and keep me as an ordinary shepherd only. ’He sounded rather depressed，and looked sadly into the fire.
Before anyone could reply，the door opened and Mr Bold－ wood came in. He greeted them all and handed the letter to Gabriel.
‘I opened this by mistake，Oak，’he said，‘but it must be for you. I'm sorry. ’
‘Oh，it doesn't matter at all，’answered Gabriel，who had no secrets from anyone. He read this letter：
I don't know your name，but I want to thank you for your kindness to me on the night I left Weatherbury. I'm also returning the money you gave me. I'm happy to say I'm going to marry the young man who has been courting me， Sergeant Troy. As he is a nobleman's son，I know he wouldn't like me to accept a gift from anyone. Please don't tell anyone about my marriage. We intend to surprise Weatherbury by arriuing there as husband and wife，very soon. Thank you again.
‘You'd better read it，Mr Boldwood，’said Gabriel. ‘It's from Fanny Robin. She wants to keep this a secret but I know you're interested in her. I met her on my way to Weather- bury，but I didn't know then who she was. ’ When Mr Boldwood had finished reading the letter，he looked very serious. ‘Poor Fanny！’he said. ‘I don't think this Sergeant Troy will ever marry her. He's clever，and handsome，but he can't be trusted. What a silly girl Fanny is！’
‘I'm very sorry to hear that，’said Gabriel.
‘By the way，Oak，’said Mr Boldwood quietly，as he and the shepherd left the malthouse together，‘could you tell me whose writing this is？’He showed Gabriel the envelope containing the valentine.
Gabriel looked at it，and said simply，‘Miss Everdene’s. ’Then he realized that Bathsheba must have written to Mr Boldwood without signing her name，and he looked，puzzled， at the farmer.
Mr Boldwood replied rather too quickly to Gabriel's unspo－ ken question. ‘It's quite normal to try to discover who has written the——valentine. That's the——fun of it. ’There was no fun at all in his manner. ‘Goodbye，Oak，’he added，and walked slowly back to his empty house.
A few days later，in the town north of Weatherbury where the soldiers were staying，a wedding was arranged As the church clock in the square struck half-past eleven，a handsome young soldier marched into the church and spoke to the vicar Then he stood still in the centre of the church，waiting for his bride. The church was full of the women and girls who had at－ tended the morning service and had decided to wait to see the wedding. They watched the young man's straight back，whis－ pering among themselves. The soldier waited without moving a muscle. The church clock struck a quarter to twelve，and still the bride did not come. The whispers stopped，and there was silence. The young man stood as stiff and straight as the church columns around him. There was a little quiet laughter from some of the women，but soon they were silent again，waiting for the end.
As the church clock struck twelve，they listened to the heavy notes ringing out from the church tower. The vicar left his position near the soldier，and disappeared into a back room. Every woman in the church was waiting to see the young man's face，and he knew it. At last he turned，and marched bravely back the way he had come，through the rows of smiling women.
When he got outside and crossed the square，he met a girl hurrying towards the church. When she saw him，the anxiety on her face changed to terror.
‘Well’？’he said，staring coldly at her.
‘Oh Frank，I made a mistake！I thought it was the other church，he one near the market，and I waited there till a quarter to twelve，and then I realized my mistake. But it doesn't matter，because we can just as easily get married tomorrow. ’
‘You're a fool，to play games with me！’he replied angrily.
‘So shall we get married tomorrow，Frank？’she asked，not understanding how seriously she had offended him. ‘Tomorrow！’he repeated，and laughed. ‘I don't want another experience like that for a while，I can promise you！’
‘But Frank，’she begged in a trembling voice，‘it wasn't such a terrible mistake！Now，dear Frank，when will our wedding be？’
‘Ah，when？God knows！’he said，and turning away from her，walked rapidly away.