took a new handkerchief from the bottom of his clothes-box, put on the light waistcoat patterned all over with sprigs of an elegant flower uniting the beauties of both rose and lily without the defects of either, and used all the hair-oil he possessed upon his usually dry, sandy, and inextricably curly hair, till he had deepened it to a splendidly novel colour, between that of guano and Roman cement, making it stick to his head like mace round a nutmeg,' or wet seaweed round a boulder after the ebb.
Nothing disturbed the stillness of the cottage save the chatter of a knot of sparrows on the eaves; one might fancy scandal and rumour to be no less the staple topic of these little coteries on roofs than of those under them. It seemed that the omen was an unpropitious one, for, as the rather untoward commencement of Oak's overtures, just as he arrived by the garden gate he saw a cat inside, going into various arched shapes and fiendish convulsions at the sight of his dog George. The dog took no notice, for he had arrived at an age at which all superfluous barking was cynically avoided as a waste of breath - in fact, he never barked even at the sheep except to order, when it was done with an absolutely neutral countenance, as a sort of Commination-service which, though offensive, had to be gone through once now and then to frighten the flock for their own good.
A voice came from behind some laurel-bushes into which the cat had run:
`Poor dear! Did a nasty brute of a dog want to kill it; - did he, poor dear!'
`I beg yer pardon,' said Oak to the voice, `but George was walking on behind me with a temper as mild as milk.'
Almost before he had ceased speaking Oak was seized with a misgiving as to whose ear was the recipient of his answer. Nobody appeared, and he heard the person retreat among the bushes.
Gabriel meditated, and so deeply that he brought small furrows into his forehead by sheer force of reverie. Where the issue of an interview is as likely to be a vast change for the wore as for the better, any initial difference from expectation causes nipping sensations of failure. Oak went up to the door a little abashed: his mental rehearsal and the reality had had no common grounds of opening.
Bathsheba's aunt was indoors. `Will you tell Miss Everdene that somebody would be glad to speak to her?' said Mr Oak. (Calling one's self merely Somebody, without giving a name, is not to be taken as an example of the ill-breeding of the rural world: it springs from a refined modesty of which townspeople, with their cards and announcements, have no notion whatever.)
Bathsheba was out. The voice had evidently been hers.
`Will you come in, Mr Oak?'
`Oh, thank 'ee,' said Gabriel, following her to the fireplace. `I've brought a lamb for Miss Everdene. I thought she might like one to rear; girls do.'
`She might,' said Mrs Hurst musingly; `though she's only a visitor here. If you will wait a minute Bathsheba will be in.'
`Yes, I will wait,' said Gabriel, sitting down. `The lamb isn't really the business I came about, Mrs Hurst. In short, I was going to ask her if she'd like to be married.'
`And were you indeed?'
`Yes. Because if she would I should be very glad to marry her. D'ye know if she's got any other young man hanging about her at all?'
`Let me think,' said Mrs Hurst, poking the fire superfluously... `Yes - bless you, ever so many young men. You see, Farmer Oak, she's so good-looking, and an excellent scholar besides - she was going to be a
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