`I thought I would come to meet you, as it is rather late,' said Oak, turning and following at her heels when she had brushed somewhat quickly by him.

`Thank you, indeed, but I am not very fearful.'

`O no; but there are bad characters about.'

`I never meet them.'

Now Oak, with marvellous ingenuity, had been going to introduce the gallant sergeant through the channel of `bad characters'. But all at once the scheme broke down, it suddenly occurring to him that this was rather a clumsy way, and too barefaced to begin with. He tried another preamble.

`And as the man who would naturally come to meet you is away from home, too - I mean Farmer Boldwood - why, thinks I, I'll go, he said.

`Ah, yes.' She walked on without turning her head, and for many steps nothing farther was heard from her quarter than the rustle of her dress against the heavy corn-ears. Then she resumed rather tartly--

`I don't quite understand what you meant by saying that Mr Boldwood would naturally come to meet me.

`I meant on account of the wedding which they say is likely to take place between you and him, miss. Forgive my speaking plainly.'

`They say what is not true,' she returned quickly. `No marriage is likely to take place between us.'

Gabriel now put forth his unobscured opinion, for the moment had come. `Well, Miss Everdene,' he said, `putting aside what people say, I never in my life saw any courting if his is not a courting of you.'

Bathsheba would probably have terminated the conversation there and then by flatly forbidding the subject, had not her conscious weakness of position allured her to palter and argue in endeavours to better it.

`Since this subject has been mentioned,' she said very emphatically, `I am glad of the opportunity of clearing up a mistake which ii very common and very provoking. I didn't definitely promise Mr Boldwood anything. I have never cared for him. I respect him, and he has urged me to marry him. But I have given him no distinct answer. As soon as he returns I shall do so; and the answer will be that I cannot think of marrying him.'

`People are fall of mistakes, seemingly.'

`They are.'

`The other day they said you were trifling with him, and you almost proved that you were not; lately they have said that you be not, and you straight away begin to show--'

`That I am, I suppose you mean.'

`Well, I hope they speak the truth.'

`They do, but wrongly applied. I don't trifle with him; but then, I have nothing to do with him.'

Oak was unfortunately led on to speak of Boldwood's rival in a wrong tone to her after all. `I wish you had never met that young Sergeant Troy, miss,' he sighed.

Bathsheba's steps became faintly spasmodic. `Why?' she asked.

`He is not good enough for 'ee.'

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