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how could i break away from you?

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Bathsheba smiles as though she cannot help it, as though she has forgotten that she is, as though she doesn’t know how not to.

-

She appears over the hill, her long brown braid whipping in the wind, and he waves in welcome.

“Have you eaten?” she calls.

He has not. “I know,” she says, and produces warm bread and yellow cheese and hard sausage. He chuckles. She smiles with her lips pressed together, well pleased with her omniscience.

“I promised your aunt a leg of mutton,” he tells her. “I’ll bring it over this afternoon.”

“Good: then you can stay for tea.”

They have been performing a series of small exchanges over the last few weeks: she brought him a pot of preserves as thanks for the return of her scarf, he gave her a fleece that was left behind when the last wool crop was sold, she loaned him a book, he mended a hole he noticed in one of her aunt’s fences. Useful exchanges, these, never gifts; they are carefully keeping themselves in each other’s debt so that they must repay it.

The point, more than anything, is that the exchange is accompanied by conversation. Lonesome as these coastal farms are, any companionship is welcome; but this is more than that—it would have been more difficult for them to not be friends than to fall into friendship. Their talk is so easy, so natural, they could not be formal now if they tried. She is happy with him and he is happy with her and they both know it.

-

The nights are so cold he almost cannot bear it. To lose feeling in his feet while tromping around after the herd, that was one thing. To huddle under a quilt while the wind howled through every crack in the cottage, likewise.

But these freezing nights!—when the dark curls in, cheerless and long, when he cannot sleep for shivering, when creekwater turns to thick ice and it would take a dozen more coats and pairs of socks to even begin to feel warm—these are nothing but suffering. He thinks back on those former nights and now sees their bounty. No matter how bitter the cold, there was always shelter close at hand; there was a friend in Old George; there was something to wake for in the morning.

He never thought he would be so grateful for fire.

-

Afternoon sunshine turns the heads of the wheat stalks white. Swallows wing their way over the fields, vanishing into the slowly lowering sun. Gabriel settles himself in the tall dry grass and carefully lights a pipe. He folds his hands around his bent knees and watches the world with the eyes of a man content in the quietude.

At the sound of stirring he glances down.

Bathsheba is looking up at him. “I fell asleep.”

“I won't tell the boss.”

She sits up. The field is empty.

Confusion wrinkles her forehead. “Where did everyone go?”

“Back to the barn.” He leans over and plucks a straw from her hair.

“Back to the barn? What for?”

“Work's done.”

She stares at him, frozen.

“It's almost suppertime,” she said in a strangled voice, looking at the angle of the sun. “They did all this without me—They were laboring while I was sleeping—”

“They were glad of it. You're getting a reputation around here, Miss Everdene, for working yourself to the bone.”

She scrambles to her feet, brushing grass off her skirt in violent swipes. “I must apologize immediately. This, after I swore to prove myself—”

"Bathsheba," he says. She stops, looks at him. He tells her, "You take good care of the people here, and they know it. Let them give you this."

She stands there, divided, until the surety in his calm blue eyes relaxes the tension in her back. She settles back in the grass, peace slowly easing through her body, feeling a little hungry but not enough to make her want to leave. Sunshine makes her bare head glow.

A comfortable silence falls over them. The rich scent of his pipe barely reaches her nose before the breeze carries it away. Small insects crawl up and down the grass stalks or buzz past her ears. She wants to ask his opinion on a dozen things—should they rotate the far west field into clover fodder next year? should they invest in more stock or new machinery?—but the words die before they reach the tip of her tongue. Right now it is enough to sit beside him, not touching but close enough to sense the in and out of his steady breathing, listening to distant birdsong and watching the shadows lengthen.

Finally her stomach growls so loudly that he can hear it. He stands and holds a hand out to her. They walk back together, and she asks her questions, and he answers accordingly.

She had never liked the sound of her name until he started saying it.

-

He sings when he works. Not when wielding a scythe, of course, but while at quiet tasks in the stable or barn, or in the pastures with the sheep. He sings low and deep, sometimes under his breath, sometimes dropping away from words into a hum. The herd knows his voice, and the horses, and probably every laborer on the farm too, Bathsheba would wager. It is as familiar a part of her days as the taste of fresh warm milk or the feel of ripe wheat kernels.

She catches her skirts up in one hand and holds the lantern aloft with the other, smiling to herself at the song floating out of the stable. She makes her way through the moonlight cast over the well-known farm paths, humming his tune.

-

He has never been much of a drinker—only with meals, or socially—but the fifth night after she comes home with Troy's ring on her finger, Gabriel grabs a full bottle of whiskey and takes it back to the tenement cottage, where he swallows as much of it as he can manage.

No, he is not a drinking man, but just once he wants oblivion. He wants to forget the breathtaking mistake she has made, to forget that she goes to bed with another man every night, a scoundrel to boot, and right now she is in there with him.

The reprieve is brief. He wakes up and wants to die. It is one of the worst days of his life, right up there with the morning Young George drove the herd off the cliff, the day he was made homeless, the day she rode past the field a newly-married woman. In the daylight he does not forget, and his illness only serves as a constant reminder of why he has done this to himself.

Oblivion, he decides, is the choice of a coward. Henceforth he intends to face his troubles head-on. He will never put himself through this hell again, no matter how wide the void inside him grows.

Troy was a shoddy laborer and, based on the past week, will prove to be an even less competent master. Trouble has come to the farm, and with time the seed will grow and blossom.

Don't abandon me, Gabriel, she once begged him, and he won't.

He sets himself to endure.

-

The farm celebrates the end of the harvest with a picnic in one of the shorn fields. The massive bonfire throws up shining sparks into the sky as it fades from watery blue to rose and tangerine and finally to a velvety black. Fireflies glow in the fields around the celebrants; unseen crickets start their songs. Jan Coggan and Jacob Smallbury reign triumphant over a perfectly-roasted pig; everyone stuffs themselves with the yield of the harvest. Gabriel Oak roasts apples and passes them to the group gathered around the circle. Bathsheba and Liddy toss toasted walnuts to the riot of capering, giggling children of the farmhands.

A raucous gust of laughter from the field outside the reach of firelight indicates where Troy and some of the men are drinking. Though she cannot see him, Bathsheba’s eyes constantly flick toward her husband, as though by keeping a weather eye out she can keep him contained to his patch of blackness, keep him from breaking the happy harmony around the bonfire.

When he does emerge into the light, bleary-eyed and smirking, trailed by men in the same stage of dissolution, she wonders how it is that he can always walk with such a swagger even when soaked.

He grabs his wife by the chin to kiss her with whiskey-flavored lips, and shows her a sweet smile. “Dance with me,” he says. “The loveliest woman in England is mine, and she’s going to dance with me.” The fiddle strikes up a jaunty tune and he grabs her hands. The onlookers cheer and clap along, and soon there are seven more couples circling the bonfire with them. Gabriel smiles and holds a hand out to Liddy, whose grin fills her face. Everyone is wreathed in merriment, laughing as they whirl around, quick alternations of light and shadow thrown across their revolving forms.

Bathsheba smiles, but the grip on her hands is too tight.

-

Frank’s eloquence does not stop with his serpentine charm. Indeed, it is no match for the poison that pours so fluently from his mouth.

She stares straight ahead, her back ramrod-straight. Her eyes are black in her ash-white face. She gives nearly inaudible orders and the staff around her scatter, both to obey and to escape the range of his lashing temper.

Gabriel goes back to his hut and puts his fist through a wall.

-

Bathsheba smiles as though she has forgotten how to, as though it requires physical effort, as though she has only just remembered she may.

-

Mistress and companion wait in the stableyard for the wagon to be loaded, watching Shepherd Oak play with his dog.

Liddy says, “Mary McArness has been trying to make him smile like that for three months. I can't wait to see her face when she finds out all it would have took is to run around on all fours.”

Bathsheba smiles, her eyes following the blurs of brown waistcoat and black-and-white hair.

“Alice Coulter made him laugh yesterday like I’ve never heard,” Liddy adds. “She’s certainly pretty enough. And she grew up on a sheep farm, it would be a good match.”

“Enough gossip,” says her mistress briskly. “Here, the grain is loaded; let’s be off.”

-

She has resumed wandering around the farm at night, to everyone’s secret joy.

“She is coming out from under it,” Liddy tells Gabriel.

The farm had been accustomed to seeing her lantern light moving through the dusk; Miss Everdene making her rounds was a sign that all was right with the world. Then had come the bad times: months when she had been too exhausted to do it, or too weighed down. To look in her eyes was to see a woman nearly beaten by life, lost in the unexpected undertow of betrayal and grief and disillusionment.

Lady’s companion and shepherd stand within the barn entrance, looking out. The balmy spring evening is welcome; each night is warmer than the last. Yellow lamplight falls on the golden hay behind them, flooding out of the stable to tint the twilight. They watch the steady movement of the distant lamp-glow, thankful for what lies before them.

-

America, he says, and she does not sleep.

A land of promise, they call it, and she knows he will flourish there. She wants him to; he deserves to.

The farm is safe; he made sure of that before deciding to go. He is leaving her as secure as he can. The good results of his labor will be felt for years to come.

And yet. She stares into the darkness. And yet.

-

Black never suited her.

Bathsheba empties her wardrobe of everything Frank ever touched her in. It is a cleansing, like shedding another old skin, but her thoughts are more for Gabriel than for herself. He would never ask for this, and would never say anything about it, but he would see her and remember, and think about it—and she can keep that pain from him, so she does. She cannot give herself to him as she was when he first wanted her, but she can strike away the taint of association and memory. She cannot undo her mistakes or make herself new, and she would not if she could, but she wants to step forward into this new life together without forcing their heads toward the past. And so most of her clothes are discarded.

At the back of her wardrobe she finds a few pieces she has not worn since she came into her inheritance: things she had at her aunt’s house, that he first knew her in. Underclothes a little more shabby than those she has become accustomed to. She looks at a certain tweed skirt, a certain blue set, and smiles, willing to admit now why she saved them.

There is not enough money to make a set of replacements, so the old pieces will have to do for the present. Still, she can hardly spend the next year in the same five outfits.

She tells Liddy everything. Liddy, bless her, magics up bolts of fabric and dressmakers’ patterns. She calls in friends from around the village and Bathsheba finds her parlor taken over by a week-long sewing party. The women are as deft with their needles as they are with their gossipmongering, and by the time the evening is over Bathsheba knows things about people she had never heard of before but has now spent a significant amount of curiosity and concern on. She wonders if she will be added to the women’s catalog of gossip, and finds she does not care. Hers has become one of the happy stories.

-

Who knew there was such relief in happiness? His hand skimming down the length of her sun-warmed arm to tangle with her fingers. His blue eyes squinting in the sun, smiling down into hers. Her thumb tracing circles on the inside of his wrist.

The pastures are speckled with the white dots that denote lambing season. The fields are blanketed with the bright green of spring shoots. The sun is warm on her face and he is warm at her back. It is spring, and everything has been made new.