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18

Mr Boldwood's Christmas party

 

For months Weatherbury people had been discussing the party that Mr Boldwood was going to give just before Christmas,and now the day had finally arrived. Bathsheba was getting ready for it.

I'm upset,Liddy,it's foolish of me,I know,’she said. ‘I wish I didn't have to go to the party. I haven't spoken to Mr Boldwood since the autumn,when I promised to see him at Christmas,so I'll have to go. My black silk dress,please. ’

Surely you don't need to wear black tonight,ma'am?You've been a widow for fourteen months now. That's a long time. ’

No,if I wear a bright dress,people will say I'm encouraging Mr Boldwood. How do I look,Liddy?’

I've hardly ever seen you look so lovely,ma'am. ’

I rish offending him if I don't go. Oh,I wish I could have continued as I've been for the last year or so,with no hopes or fears,and no pleasures and no sadness. ’

If Mr Boldwood asked you to run away with him,what would you say,ma'am?’said Liddy with a smile.

Now,Liddy,no joking. This is far too serious. I won't marry anyone for a long time. Get my cloak. It's time to go. ’

At the same time,in his farmhouse,Boldwood was also dressing He was trying on a new coat which had just been delivered. Tonight he wanted to look his best.

Just then Gabriel entered,to report on farm business.

Oh,Oak,’said Boldwood. ‘You're invited to the party tonight,of course. ’

I'll try to come,if I'm not too busy,’said Gabriel quietly. ‘I'm glad to see you looking happier,sir. ’

Yes,I confess I'm cheerful tonight. But my happiness depends on a hope. Oak,my hands are shaking. Could you help me with the buttons on this coat?’And as Gabriel came forward to help,he went on feverishly,‘Oak,does a woman keep her promise to become engaged?You know women better than I do—tell me. ’

I don't think I understand women well at all. But if she wants to put right a mistake,she may keep a promise like that. ’

I think she will,’whispered Boldwood. ‘She says she can think of me as a husband seven years after Troy's disappear-ance. ’

Seven years,’said Gabriel,shaking his head. ‘A long time. ’

But it isn't seven years!’answered Boldwood impatiently. ‘It's only five years,nine months and a few days now!’

Don't build your hopes on her promise,sir. Remember,she disappointed you once. And she's young. ’

She never promised me that first time,so she's never broken her promise to me yet. I trust her to keep her word. But let's talk business for a moment,Oak. You work so hard as my farm manager that I want you to have a larger share of the profits. I know a little about your secret. You have warm feelings for her too,but you've let me succeed in courting her!I want to show you how grateful I am for that. ’

Oh,that's not necessary,thank you,’said Gabriel hurriedly. ‘I must get used to my disappointment as other men have. ’He left,rather worried by Boldwood's strange manner.

Outside the front door of Boldwood's house a group of men were talking quietly.

Sergeant Troy was seen in Casterbridge this afternoon,’said Billy Smallbury. ‘His body was never found,you know,neighbours. ’

Should we tell the mistress?’asked Laban Tall. ‘Poor woman!What a mistake she made in marrying him!’

Just then Boldwood came out and walked to the gate. He did not notice the men,who were standing in the darkness.

I hope to God she'll come!’he whispered. ‘Oh,my darling,my darling,why do you make me wait like this!’

They all heard his words clearly. The sound of wheels came from the road,and Bathsheba arrived. Boldwood took her into the house,and the door closed behind them.

I didn't realize he was still in love with her!’said Billy.

Poor Mr Boldwood,the news will be hard for him,’said Jan Coggan. ‘We'll have to tell the mistress her husband's still alive. We'll go in and find the right moment to speak to her. ’

But the right moment never came. Bathsheba had planned to stay at the party for only an hour,and she was in fact preparing to leave when Boldwood found her alone in an upstairs room.

Mrs Troy,you can't go!’he said wildly. ‘We've only just begun!’

I'd like to go now. I think I'll walk home. ’

You know what I want to say to you?’Bathsheba looked silently at the floor. ’You do give it?’he said eagerly.

Give what?’she asked,althoug she knew well what he meant.

Your promise!Just a business arrangement between two sensible people who no longer think of love. To marry me in five to six years!You owe it to me!’

I have no feeling in that matter at all,’she replied,hesitating. ‘But if I must,I promise—if I'm really a widow. ’

You'll marry me in five and three-quarter years’time?’

Let me think!I'll marry nobody else. Oh,I don't know!Is Frank really dead?Perhaps I should ask a lawyer!’

Say the words,my dear one,and I won't speak about it any more. A long engagement,then marriage—Oh Bathsheba!Promise yourself to me!’he begged wildly,forgetting his cool,businesslike manner. ‘I've loved you so much and for so long!’

Very well,’she said after a pause,‘I'll marry you six years from now if we're both alive and if my husband doesn't return. ’

Then wear this ring for me. ’Boldwood took from his pocket a diamond engagement ring,and held it out to her.

No,no,I can'tI don't want anyone to know!’

Just wear it tonight,to please me!’Bathsheba could say no more,and weakly let him put it on her finger. He left her.

In a few minutes she was calmer. She put on her cloak and went downstairs. She paused at the foot of the stairs. Bold-wood was standing near the fire,and he had just noticed that a group of villagers were whispering among themselves.

What's the matter,men?’he asked cheerfully. ‘Is any-body engaged or married,born or dead?Tell us the news,Tall. ’

I wish somebody was dead,’replied Laban Tall in a whisper.

What was that,Tall?’asked Boldwood. ‘Speak out,if you have anything to say. ’

At that moment there was a knock on the front door. One of the men opened it. ‘A stranger wants to see Mrs Troy,’he said.

Ask him to come in,’said Boldwood.

The message was given,and Troy,wrapped up to his eyes in the cloak,stood in the doorway. Those who knew he was in the area recognized him immediately. Boldwood did not. He said,‘Come in,stranger,and have a Christmas drink with us!’

Troy entered,threw off his cloak and looked Boldwood in the face. But it was only when he laughed that Boldwood recognized the man who had destroyed his hope and happiness once and was about to do it again.

Troy turned to Bathsheba. She had dropped miserably on to the lowest stair. Her mouth was blue and dry,her eyes empty and staring. He said,‘Bathsheba,I've come here for you!’She did not reply. ‘Come home with me,do you hear!’He went towards her.

A strange,thin voice,full of despair,came from the fire-place. ‘Bathsheba,go with your husband!’said Boldwood.

She did not move,and when Troy stretched out his hand to pull her towards him,she fell back with a quick,low scream.

A second later there was a loud bang,and the hall was filled with smoke. At Bathsheba's cry,Boldwood's despair had turned to anger. From the wall above the fireplace he had taken a gun and shot Troy,who now lay very still. Boldwood turned the gun on himself,but was stopped by one of his men.

It doesn't matter!’Boldwood gasped. ‘There's another way to die!’

He crossed the room to Bathsheba,and kissed her hand. Then he went out into the darkness before anyone could prevent him.

 


 

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