Bathsheba is preparing to close the farm before going to bed. Gabriel usually precedes her and watches her, though she doesn’t know it: women, the narrator says, complain about men’s fickleness in love, though they snub his constancy.
Our narrator’s periodic intrusions underline the somewhat skeptical view of women that pervades the book, even as it portrays a woman who manages a farm successfully.
After inspecting the buildings, Bathsheba goes to the farm paddock, peering at the Devon cows inside. She goes back through a plantation of firs, an area that is gloomy and dark whatever the time of day. Suddenly Bathsheba thinks she hears footsteps. Slightly disconcerted, she pauses as the noise approaches: a figure brushes past her and something hitches on her skirt; she falls. A male voice asks if he’s hurt her, and cries that they’re somehow stuck together. He asks to use her lantern, and opens its door.
Much of Bathsheba’s work is solitary; she does have a companion in Liddy, but no one who is both a woman and a member of her own social station, which can be isolating. Nonetheless, Bathsheba is usually comfortable in the space of her own farm; this chance meeting—another reminder of the strange laws of circumstance—is an exception.
In the light Bathsheba can see that the man is a soldier, nothing like the sinister figure she’d momentarily feared. He offers to unfasten her, but she hastens to do it. She lifts her eyes and sees him gazing at her. Finally he offers to cut her dress, since she can’t manage. He brushes her hand as he does so, which annoys Bathsheba. He thanks her for the sight of a beautiful face: with dignity and indignation, she says she didn’t willingly show it. He continues to tease her, and she chastises him for his rudeness.
Bathsheba’s first meeting with the man who will turn out to be her third suitor is just as awkward and uncomfortable as some of her other encounters with other men. This time, though, the man is more gallant and flirtatious than the country farmers whom Bathsheba is used to: his manner puts her out of sorts.
The soldier manages to cut the dress, and bows as he apologizes to the “charming” lady, more beautiful than any woman he’s ever seen. Bathsheba asks who he is: his name is Sergeant Troy, and he’s lodging here. After he teases her more, Bathsheba stands up so as to get away from him, he bids goodbye to her, calling her “Beauty.”
Part of the peculiarity and forwardness of the man’s manner comes, we now learn, from his different social station: as a soldier he may not be wealthier than farmers, but he’s acquainted with more sophisticated town life.
Bathsheba rushes inside and asks Liddy if any gentleman-looking soldier is staying in the village. It might be Sergeant Troy on furlough, she thinks. Bathsheba asks what kind of person he is: Liddy says he’s a ruin to honest girls, as some say, but she thinks he’s quick, trim, and clever—a doctor’s son and well-educated, though he wasted it by enlisting.
Liddy again serves as a female counterpart to the men at the malt-house: she catches Bathsheba up on the local gossip and general opinion. Here, though, her opinion is affected by her own soft spot for Sergeant Troy.
Bathsheba, nonetheless, isn’t entirely offended: women like her can put up with unconventional behavior when it involves being praised or, sometimes, mastered, the narrator says. She can’t decide whether or not he insulted her. But Boldwood, all the same, had never told her she was beautiful.
Bathsheba is unsettled by the encounter, and just as she’s been morally divided regarding Boldwood, now she’s internally conflicted about this man, who knew just how to flatter her.