Boldwood was dressing also at this hour. A tailor from Casterbridge was with him, assisting him in the operation of trying on a new coat that had just been brought home.
Never had Boldwood been so fastidious, unreasonable about the fit, and generally difficult to please. The tailor walked round and round him, tugged at the waist, pulled the sleeve, pressed out the collar, and for the first time in his experience Boldwood was not bored. Times had been when the farmer had exclaimed against all such niceties as childish, but now no philosophic or hasty rebuke whatever was provoked by this man for attaching as much importance to a crease in the coat as to an earthquake in South America. Boldwood at last expressed himself nearly satisfied, and paid the bill, the tailor passing out of the door just as Oak came in to report progress for the day.
"Oh, Oak," said Boldwood. "I shall of course see you here to-night. Make yourself merry. I am determined that neither expense nor trouble shall be spared."
"I'll try to be here, sir, though perhaps it may not be very early," said Gabriel, quietly. "I am glad indeed to see such a change in 'ee from what it used to be."
"Yes—I must own it—I am bright to-night: cheerful and more than cheerful—so much so that I am almost sad again with the sense that all of it is passing away. And sometimes, when I am excessively hopeful and blithe, a trouble is looming in the distance: so that I often get to look upon gloom in me with content, and to fear a happy mood. Still this may be absurd—I feel that it is absurd. Perhaps my day is dawning at last."
"I hope it 'ill be a long and a fair one."
"Thank you—thank you. Yet perhaps my cheerfulness rests on a slender hope. And yet I trust my hope. It is faith, not hope. I think this time I reckon with my host.—Oak, my hands are a little shaky, or something; I can't tie this neckerchief properly. Perhaps you will tie it for me. The fact is, I have not been well lately, you know."
"I am sorry to hear that, sir."
"Oh, it's nothing. I want it done as well as you can, please. Is there any late knot in fashion, Oak?"
"I don't know, sir," said Oak. His tone had sunk to sadness.
Boldwood approached Gabriel, and as Oak tied the neckerchief the farmer went on feverishly—
"Does a woman keep her promise, Gabriel?"
"If it is not inconvenient to her she may."
"—Or rather an implied promise."
"I won't answer for her implying," said Oak, with faint bitterness. "That's a word as full o' holes as a sieve with them."
"Oak, don't talk like that. You have got quite cynical lately—how is it? We seem to have shifted our positions: I have become the young and hopeful man, and you the old and unbelieving one. However, does a woman keep a promise, not to marry, but to enter on an engagement to marry at some time? Now you know women better than I—tell me."
"I am afeard you honour my understanding too much. However, she may keep such a promise, if it is made with an honest meaning to repair a wrong."
"It has not gone far yet, but I think it will soon—yes, I know it will," he said, in an impulsive whisper. "I have pressed her upon the subject, and she inclines to be kind to me, and to think of me as a husband at a long future time, and that's enough for me. How can I expect more? She has a notion that a woman should not marry within seven years of her husband's disappearance—that her own self shouldn't, I mean—because his body was not found. It may be merely this legal reason which influences her, or it may be a religious one, but she is reluctant to talk on the point. Yet she has promised—implied—that she will ratify an engagement to-night."
"Seven years," murmured Oak.
"No, no—it's no such thing!" he said, with impatience. Five years, nine months, and a few days. Fifteen months nearly have passed since he vanished, and is there anything so wonderful in an engagement of little more than five years?"
"It seems long in a forward view. Don't build too much upon such promises, sir. Remember, you have once be'n deceived. Her meaning may be good; but there—she's young yet."
"Deceived? Never!" said Boldwood, vehemently. "She never promised me at that first time, and hence she did not break her promise! If she promises me, she'll marry me. Bathsheba is a woman to her word."