ON the turnpike road, between Casterbridge and Weatherbury, and about three miles from the former place, is Yalbury Hill, one of those steep long ascents which pervade the highways of this undulating part of South Wessex. In returning from market it is usual for the farmers and other gig-gentry to alight at the bottom and walk up.
One Saturday evening in the month of October Bathsheba's vehicle was duly creeping up this incline. She was sitting listlessly in the second seat of the gig, whilst walking beside her in farmer's marketing suit of unusually fashionable cut was an erect, well-made young man. Though on foot, he held the reins and whip, and occasionally aimed light cuts at the horse's ear with the end of the lash, as a recreation. This man was her husband, formerly Sergeant Troy, who, having bought his discharge with Bathsheba's money, was gradually transforming himself into a farmer of a spirited and very modern school. People of unalterable ideas still insisted upon calling him "Sergeant" when they met him, which was in some degree owing to his having still retained the well-shaped moustache of his military days, and the soldierly bearing inseparable from his form and training.
"Yes, if it hadn't been for that wretched rain I should have cleared two hundred as easy as looking, my love," he was saying. "Don't you see, it altered all the chances? To speak like a book I once read, wet weather is the narrative, and fine days are the episodes, of our country's history; now, isn't that true?"
"But the time of year is come for changeable weather."
"Well, yes. The fact is, these autumn races are the ruin of everybody. Never did I see such a day as 'twas! 'Tis a wild open place, just out of Budmouth, and a drab sea rolled in towards us like liquid misery. Wind and rain -- good Lord! Dark? Why, 'twas as black as my hat before the last race was run. 'Twas five o'clock, and you couldn't see the horses till they were almost in, leave alone colours. The ground was as heavy as lead, and all judgment from a fellow's experience went for nothing. Horses, riders, people, were all blown about like ships at sea. Three booths were blown over, and the wretched folk inside crawled out upon their hands and knees; and in the next field were as many as a dozen hats at one time. Ay, Pimpernel regularly stuck fast, when about sixty yards off, and when I saw Policy stepping on, it did knock my heart against the lining of my ribs, I assure you, my love!"
"And you mean, Frank," said Bathsheba, sadly -- her voice was painfully lowered from the fulness and vivacity of the previous summer -- "that you have lost more than a hundred pounds in a month by this dreadful horse-racing? O, Frank, it is cruel; it is foolish of you to take away my money so. We shall have to leave the farm; that will be the end of it!"
"Humbug about cruel. Now, there 'tis again -- turn on the waterworks; that's just like you."
"But you'll promise me not to go to Budmouth second meeting, won't you?" she implored. Bathsheba was at the full depth for tears, but she maintained a dry eye.
"I don't see why I should; in fact, if it turns out to be a fine day, I was thinking of taking you."
"Never, never! I'll go a hundred miles the other way first. I hate the sound of the very word!"
"But the question of going to see the race or staying at home has very little to do with the matter. Bets are all booked safely enough before the race begins, you may depend. Whether it is a bad race for me or a good one, will have very little to do with our going there next Monday."
"But you don't mean to say that you have risked anything on this one too!" she exclaimed, with an agonized look.
"There now, don't you be a little fool. Wait till you are told. Why, Bathsheba, you have lost all the pluck and sauciness you formerly had, and upon my life if I had known what a chicken-hearted creature you were under all your boldness, I'd never have -- I know what."
A flash of indignation might have been seen in Bathsheba's dark eyes as she looked resolutely ahead after this reply. They moved on without further speech, some early-withered leaves from the trees which hooded the road at this spot occasionally spinning downward across their path to the earth.
A woman appeared on the brow of the hill. The ridge was in a cutting, so that she was very near the husband and wife before she became visible. Troy had turned towards the gig to remount, and whilst putting his foot on the step the woman passed behind him.
Though the overshadowing trees and the approach of eventide enveloped them in gloom, Bathsheba could see plainly enough to discern the extreme poverty of the woman's garb, and the sadness of her face.
"Please, sir, do you know at what time Casterbridge Union-house closes at night?"
The woman said these words to Troy over his shoulder.
Troy started visibly at the sound of the voice; yet he seemed to recover presence of mind sufficient to prevent himself from giving way to his impulse to suddenly turn and face her. He said, slowly --
"I don't know."
The woman, on hearing him speak, quickly looked up, examined the side of his face, and recognized the soldier under the yeoman's garb. Her face was drawn into an expression which had gladness and agony both among its elements. She uttered an hysterical cry, and fell down.
"Oh, poor thing!" exclaimed Bathsheba, instantly preparing to alight.
"Stay where you are, and attend to the horse!" said Troy, peremptorily throwing her the reins and the whip. "Walk the horse to the top: I'll see to the woman."
"But I ----"
"Do you hear? Clk -- Poppet!"
The horse, gig, and Bathsheba moved on.
"How on earth did you come here? I thought you were miles away, or dead! Why didn't you write to me?" said Troy to the woman, in a strangely gentle, yet hurried voice, as he lifted her up.
"I feared to."
"Have you any money?"
"Good Heaven -- I wish I had more to give you! Here's -- wretched -- the merest trifle. It is every farthing I have left. I have none but what my wife gives me, you know, and I can't ask her now."
The woman made no answer.
"I have only another moment," continued Troy; "and now listen. Where are you going to-night? Casterbridge Union?"
"Yes; I thought to go there."
"You shan't go there; yet, wait. Yes, perhaps for to-night; I can do nothing better -- worse luck! Sleep there to-night, and stay there to-morrow. Monday is the first free day I have; and on Monday morning, at ten exactly, meet me on Grey's Bridge, just out of the town. I'll bring all the money I can muster. You shan't want -- I'll see that, Fanny; then I'll get you a lodging somewhere. Good-bye till then. I am a brute -- but good-bye!"
After advancing the distance which completed the ascent of the hill, Bathsheba turned her head. The woman was upon her feet, and Bathsheba saw her withdrawing from Troy, and going feebly down the hill by the third milestone from Casterbridge. Troy then came on towards his wife, stepped into the gig, took the reins from her hand, and without making any observation whipped the horse into a trot. He was rather agitated.
"Do you know who that woman was?" said Bathsheba, looking searchingly into his face.
"I do," he said, looking boldly back into hers.
"I thought you did," said she, with angry hauteur, and still regarding him. "Who is she?"
He suddenly seemed to think that frankness would benefit neither of the women.
"Nothing to either of us," he said. "I know her by sight."
"What is her name?"
"How should I know her name?"
"I think you do."
"Think if you will, and be ----" The sentence was completed by a smart cut of the whip round Poppet's flank, which caused the animal to start forward at a wild pace. No more was said.