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Rallying her self-possession, however, she wheeled, and would have plunged back into the depths of the thicket if he had not called to her.
"Wait a bit, Miss Leslie!" he cried. "No, Stephen, let her go," exclaimed Sheba. 'Tis too bad that we couldn't have these few moments to ourselves wi'out bein' spied on; I don't want to talk to her."
"Stay there if you like, then," said Stephen. "I must tell her. There mustn't be any misunderstanding."
"I'll come wi' you then," cried Sheba, and stepped along by his side with the grace, the restrained energy of a young panther, with something also of the watchful savagery of the wild beast in her gaze. Kitty awaited their approach with an expression of haughty surprise, as though wondering that Stephen had hailed her.
He was breathing quickly as he halted before her.
"I want to tell you, Miss Leslie," he began abruptly, "that Sheba Baverstock has promised to be my wife."
"Indeed?" said Kitty, coldly. "I congratulate you."
"I'd 'low you're a bit surprised," interrupted Sheba defiantly.
Kitty turned to her with a scarcely perceptible curl of the lip.
"Why should you think me likely to be surprised?" she rejoined with a faintly sarcastic emphasis.
Sheba stepped back as though she had received a blow. The remembrance of their previous encounter on this very spot, and of Sheba's subsequent confidences, were in the minds of both. Sheba did not speak, however; and Kitty glanced, still with the same ironical smile, at Stephen, stepped past them, and walked away.
The couple stood still till the swish of her skirts was no longer heard, and then Stephen drew near Sheba again. "Come," he said.
and she took it; they walked on in silence, but not the silence of a little while before which had been so fraught with happiness for Sheba. The sense of shame and remorse of which Stephen had been conscious had previously been all for the sake of the girl beside him; but now it became twofold. What kind of figure must he cut in Kitty's eyes? How could she reconcile his recent words with the state of things which she had just witnessed. It well became him to reproach her with fickleness of purpose, when he himself, who had professed to love her with such depth and earnestness, had turned so lightly, as she must think, to another woman. He writhed inwardly as he remembered the pale, scornful little face, the derisive smile which he had never before seen on Kitty's lips.
Sheba broke in upon his painful meditations.
"Your arm's just same as a block o' wood, here in mine!" she cried, with a kind of passionate impatience. "What's come to ye?" Then, without waiting for an answer-"Oh! I wish, I wish we'd never met her! We might ha' had one hour. Jist the one hour I craved for-but she's come between!" Stephen stopped short and looked at
"You mustn't say such things as that, my girl," he said. "We are promised man and wife. I'm not the man to let any one come between us."
But Sheba, unconvinced, clutched his
"Tell me one thing-was it to be re venged on her you took up wi' me?"
"No!" he cried angrily. "I wonder you dare ask me such a question! Miss Leslie is nothing to me-If I had my will I'd never see her again," he added bitterly.
"That's summat," said Sheba, half to herself. Then, with one of her swift
He extended his arm mechanically, changes of mood, she flung her arms
about his neck and Stephen kissed her sorrowfully.
"Oh!' she cried, drawing away from him immediately-"I don't know how I can forget myself like this! I think we had better go home along now," she added in a different tone, for he did not speak, though he would have given worlds to have found loving words. ""Tis gettin' dark, and I d' 'low you must be tired, if I'm not-you what's goin' about all day."
"I'm not tired," said Stephen; nevertheless he turned, and the two went slowly homewards; Sheba's heart yearning and Stephen's like a stone.
Stephen halted outside the milkhouse door; he could see Sheba within bending over one of the long "leads" which contained milk in different stages, from the still foaming evening yield to the already cream-covered product of the morning.
“Did you call me?"
"Yes; can you step in a moment?" Stephen. stepped in, but Sheba continued to skim without turning her head.
"Did you want me for something?" he asked a little impatiently, and then, "Isn't it tea-time?"
"Yes, but your mother's got company."
"Well, but we must have our tea, I suppose."
"It's Miss Kitty Leslie," said Sheba, straightening herself and turning round.
Stephen came a step or two further into the milk-house and Sheba resumed her work. He stood by her tapping his boot with his riding crop.
"Well," said she after a moment, "you bain't in such a hurry to go in now?"
"I'll wait till you're ready," returned he.
"You'll wait till she's gone, then," said Sheba, "I bain't a-going in till then. I don't know why Mrs. Hardy did bring her in, I'm sure, for she wasn't so very willin'."
Stephen made no direct reply; he crossed the flagged floor to a shelf in the corner on which sundry rolls of butter, each neatly folded up in its own particular square of muslin, lay piled for to-morrow's market.
"Did you have a good churning this morning?" he inquired.
"Ees, the cows be givin' a deal of milk now, This lot be waitin' for We sold twice as much
Frisby's cart. this marnin'."
"Did you?" said he.
"'Ees," said Sheba. She tapped her skimmer against the side of the shallow pan and went on to the next.
Stephen stood still, whistling under his breath. Sheba, though apparently intent on her work, watched him furtively.
"You've got a new customer for cream," she remarked after a pause. "Have we?" returned he.
"That lady what have a-took Parson Filton's Rectory, she've ordered it to be sent twice a day."
"Rather a bother for a small order."
"Mrs. Hardy says if folks mean to do business they must show themselves willin' to carry out all orders, great or small. Don't you agree wi' she?"
Stephen, looking absently out of the window, made no reply.
"Don't you agree, I say?" asked the girl, and the hand which held the tin skimmer shook a little.
"I beg your pardon," said he, going towards her again. "I'm afraid I wasn't listening just then. What did you say?"
"It doesn't matter. I saw you warn't listenin' to I. You was listenin' to summat else though."
"What do you mean?"
Sheba made no answer, and in the
ensuing silence the tread of light feet could be heard on the path without, and presently Kitty's figure passed the window and the open door and made its way to the gate. Stephen did not turn his head to look at her, and Sheba watched him with that wild-beast expression once more transforming her beautiful eyes. The gate opened with its familiar creak and swung to again. Then Sheba flung the skimmer down and turned to her lover.
"It's more nor flesh an' blood can stand," she exclaimed. "Do ye think I've no eyes in my head an' no feelin' in my heart? Why, ye've got another face on when ye hear her step. You was a-watchin' out for't and a-holdin' your breath. I see'd ye and this bain't the only time, it's always, always! I shan't come to this place no
Father and me must get along
so well as we can, but I'll earn enough to keep us somewhere else."
Stephen, confounded by the outburst, angry, ashamed, remorseful all at once, had no words with which to reply.
"D'ye think I didn't notice yesterday when we was at dinner," she went on vehemently- "your mother just named her and ye got up and looked out o' the window just for a pretence to hide your face. I very nigh choked over the morsel what was i' my mouth. I'll not eat your bread, and I'll not take your pay-I’ll—”
"Sheba," exclaimed Stephen, taking her firmly by the wrists and looking into the wild eyes with a sternness which seemed to steady them. "You mustn't talk like this-you mustn't think such things."
"I tell ye it's no use," she went on more quietly but still with a kind of desperation. "I've tried an' I've tried -many a time I was longin' to fly out an' I checked myself-I swallowed my feelin's down, but I can't go on. How is it to end? When you an' me are man an' wife-if we are ever man an'
wife? Do you think I can bide that other maid livin' at a stone's throw from our door? To know you are meetin' her twenty times a day, lookin' up at her windows, thinkin' of her-"
"I never do that," he cried impatiently.
"Ye never think of her?"
"No, I mean I never look up at her windows."
"Ye can't say ye never think of her, ye see," she returned with a kind of fiercely sad triumph. "There must be an end on't, Stephen, either she must go or I. I have often wondered she doesn't go-anybody else would. Well, if she don't, I must."
Stephen took a turn about the room and then came up to her.
"You are quite right," he said in a dull voice. ""Tis too much to expect any woman to bear. It isn't right. They must give up the house."
"Ye'll have a grudge against me now for askin' it," she said, watching his face attentively.
"No, why should I bear you a grudge? 'Tis too much to expect, as you say, for any woman that's jealous of another to have her living a stone's throw from her door."
"Jealous!" exclaimed Sheba. angry light leaped up once more in her eyes, and she drew a long breath as though in preparation for another outburst; then all at once she calmed herself and continued brokenly: "Well, I am jealous. I'll own to it-maybe I've cause an' maybe I haven't. I did ought to give ye up, Stephen-that 'ud be the right thing to do--I did ought to leave ye to her!"
"Haven't I told you a hundred times," said Stephen in a voice that trembled with anger, "that Miss Leslie and I can never be anything to each other. If there wasn't another woman in the world and there wasn't another man it 'ud be the same-we be nothing to each other."
Sheba went to him timidly and laid her hand upon his arm.
"I know I didn't ought to be jealous," she said pleadingly, "I know your promise ought to be enough and I ought to content myself. I'll try to content myself. I'll try to be patient and not expect too much. Ye'll not be angry wi' me, Stephen?"
"No, I'm not angry," said he, "the thing has to be done-it ought to have been done before. It's right every way," he added, half to himself.
He went out of the milk-house and when Sheba, after finishing her task, followed him, she found him already seated at the tea-table. Mrs. Hardy was unusually and disagreeably loquacious throughout the meal-disagreebly, I say, for though the good woman had no intention of making herself unpleasant, the subjects which she selected for discussion were one and all calculated to give pain to her hearers.
"At long last," she announced triumphantly, "I managed to persuade Miss Kitty to pop in for a moment. I can't think what's come to her. I did use to think she was taken up wi' her fine friends, but she don't seem to care for them now. 'No,' says she to me, 'give me the country, Mrs. Hardy. I'd rather have the Little Farm nor all the fine houses I've been seeing lately; I'd give all the parks and all the chimneypots for the view from my bedroom window'-"
A dead silence ensued, broken at length by Stephen who nerved himself to make some response.
"Chimney-pots! I reckon they're ugly things to look at, at the best of times."
"Well, an' so they be, my dear. 'Tis just a fayshion o' talkin' o' London town, I s'pose-I reckon there are more chimney-pots nor anything else there. She bain't lookin' so very well, I don't think."
As no answer was returned to this
remark, Rebecca repeated it emphatically: "I say Miss Leslie bain't lookin' so very well, Stephen. Haven't ye noticed it?"
"I'm sorry to hear it," returned her step-son gravely.
"I thought ye'd ha' noticed it," repeated Mrs. Hardy in a satisfied tone. "She seem to have lost her spirits too. She were always quieter nor Miss Bess, but she an' me used to have our little jokes together, an' now shę do sit so mournful like-an' she do seem so nerv. ish-terr'ble nervish. There, she do fair jump whenever a door do open."
This remark appeared to call for no answer and neither of the listeners volunteered one.
"I do feel a bit hurt in my feelings about Miss Bess," continued Rebecca. "There, she do never come a-nigh us now, her as used to be poppin' in and out at all hours makin' believe to help me wi' this an' that. "Tis a little weathercock-'ees, sure, she be just like a weathercock wi' that little red head an' all."
The conceit tickled Mrs. Hardy's fancy, though, as a matter of fact, weathercocks are not, as a rule, remarkable for red heads. She laughed loudly, suddenly breaking off, however, with an aggrieved face.
"There, I declare, I mid jist so well sit down to table wi' a couple o' Injun mummies. Never a word from one or t'other o' ye since we began tea-an' this be my second cup. I bain't used to doing all the talkin'. What makes ye so silent, Sheba love?"
"I've never got much to say, Mrs. Hardy" rejoined Sheba.
"You do look a bit put out. Be there summat wrong, Stephen?"
But Stephen, knowing that his turn would come next, had already risen, and now left the room without pausing to answer.
He went to his room and washed his hands, changed his coat for a better
one, and went straight out to the Little Farm. His views were always extremely simple, and it never would have occurred to him to write a letter to a man who lived at a few yards' distance. Moreover, a certain directness in his nature hindered what he would have considered the shirking of an unpleasant duty. The thing had to be done-it was better to do it at once, wasting as few words as possible over it.
Mr. Leslie was, as usual, surrounded by papers, and had been grappling with some knotty point, as was evidenced by his frown and the somewhat dishevelled condition of his hair, through which he had been irritably passing his long nervous fingers. The expression which his already annoyed countenance assumed was positively ferocious when Louisa, after a preliminary thump at the door, which made him jump in his seat, burst in with the gleeful announcement:
"Mr. Hardy to see you, Sir."
"I can't see any one now," responded Mr. Leslie irritably; but Stephen's tall figure already stood towering over Louisa in the doorway.
"Please, Sir, I said I thought you was busy," observed Louisa in an eagerly explanatory tone, "but Measter Hardy said-"
"There, that'll do, my girl. You are only taking up your master's time-I'll say what I have to say for myself."
This from Stephen, who had by this time entered the room, and now stood close to Mr. Leslie's sacred writingtable.
"Really," said his tenant, "I'm rather surprised, Mr. Hardy. I thought you knew I disliked being disturbed when I am at work."
"I'll only keep you a few minutes," said Stephen.
Mr. Leslie shrugged his shoulders resignedly.
"Oh well, a few minutes. The
thread of my thought is broken nowit doesn't really matter much whether it's for a few minutes or more."
"I am sorry to have disturbed you," said the visitor, who still stood overshadowing the writing-table.
Mr. Leslie made up his mind to accept the inevitable.
"How do you do?" he murmured with a groan, endeavoring at the same time to clear his brow. He looked at the hand which held the precious pen, discussing with himself the advisability of laying aside that implement, and extending the hand in question to Stephen; but apparently decided that the young farmer did not deserve to be rewarded for his intrusion.
"I came to see you, Mr. Leslie," said Stephen after a pause, "about a rather unpleasant matter. I am sorry to say, Sir, that I shall have to ask you to leave the Little Farm."
"What!" cried Mr. Leslie, with an expression of such blank astonishment and dismay that Stephen's heart smote him.
"I am very sorry to have to ask you to give up possession," he went on, however, firmly enough, "but I wish to get the place back into my own hands."
Mr. Leslie leaned back in his chair, his jaw dropping, his already pale face becoming still paler. His intense dismay would have seemed ludicrously out of place to any one less deeply concerned than his landlord.
"But, Mr. Hardy, it's impossible," he gasped at length. "It is monstrousI could not possibly turn out now. This is the most critical period of my life. My great book is now almost completed. I have collected all the materials for the final chapters-the most important, mind you, of the whole work. The success of the whole scheme of the work depends on the development of these chapters. I have, as you know, perhaps, been at great pains