On Christmas eve, Boldwood is to give a great party. This is quite unusual for him, and the village is buzzing with talk. From six to noon the decorations are brought in, and a fire is made in the grand hall: still, the house can’t shake off its habitual solemnity.
The reason for Boldwood’s party is most likely evident to most in the village, who know him well enough to recognize such joviality as an aberration for him.
Bathsheba is dressing in her room, and asks Liddy to stay with her: she feels agitated, as she hasn’t spoken to Boldwood since the fall, and didn’t know there would be such a party. She’s the cause of it, she says. She wishes she’d never seen Weatherbury—she’s never been free from trouble since moving here. She asks for her mourning dress: Liddy says it’s not necessary, but Bathsheba doesn’t want people to talk.
Bathsheba had asked Boldwood to wait until Christmas for an answer to his proposal, and now fully realizes that she can no longer put off deciding between competing understandings of morality. She’s also still acutely aware that many eyes in the village are on her.
Boldwood is also dressing with his tailor, more fastidiously than ever. Finally the tailor leaves and Gabriel comes in to report on the day’s farming progress. Boldwood hopes he’ll see Gabriel that night. Gabriel quietly says he’ll try, though perhaps not until later. He remarks that Boldwood seems more cheerful, and Boldwood agrees, though he says his mood rests on a slender hope.
Gabriel has found himself tied to Boldwood in more ways than one, both in terms of economic affairs and regarding their feelings for Bathsheba. While they’ve shared grief for her before, now their attitudes couldn’t be more opposed.
Boldwood asks Gabriel to tie his neckerchief, then feverishly asks if a woman keeps her implied promise. Gabriel answers with bitterness, and Boldwood says he’s gotten overly cynical recently. Boldwood hopes that he might be able to expect a positive answer from Bathsheba, and that they might be married, now in five years and nine months. Gabriel reminds him that he was once deceived, and not to build too much on promises, but Boldwood says she keeps her word.
Gabriel’s bitterness stems from the fact that he feels he has to help and defend Boldwood, even though that means that he’s helping his rival attain just what he would want for himself. He’s also more prudent than Boldwood, though, and recognizes that his rival may well be far too optimistic.
Troy is sitting in a Casterbridge tavern when Pennyways enters. Troy asks if he’s seen Lawyer Long: he wasn’t at home, the bailiff says. Troy can’t imagine he should be held liable for anything if he seemed to be drowned and then wasn’t, though Pennyways says that changing his name and so forth makes him a cheat, possibly punishable by law.
As Troy plots his next move, he’s eager to ensure that his return to Weatherbury won’t jeopardize his own safety—he isn’t quite sure if his deception was legally wrong rather than merely emotionally devastating for his wife.
Pennyways also hasn’t been able to learn whether there’s anything really between Bathsheba and Boldwood. She’s not fond of him, though, he thinks. Troy says she’s a handsome woman, and asks how she looked recently. She looked well but haughty, as usual, Pennyways says. Troy tells him to be loyal to himself, and this haughty goddess won’t hurt him.
Troy has also been using Pennyways as a source of local knowledge and gossip. While Troy never hesitated to wound Bathsheba by telling her how much he preferred Fanny, he can’t stand the idea of his “property” being stolen by another.
Bathsheba asks Liddy how she looks, and Liddy flatters her: Bathsheba worries that people will think she’s trying to snare Boldwood. She sighs that her feelings swing from wretched to buoyant, and she wishes she could regain her apathy from the past year. Liddy wonders if Bathsheba could elope with Boldwood, but Bathsheba says severely that if she marries, many years from now, it will be for reasons few know.
Throughout these chapters, the point of view switches rapidly back and forth between the different characters, all preparing for the climactic scene at Boldwood’s party. Bathsheba had thought she’d moved from emotion to indifference, but now knows she’s not yet exempt from these swings.
Boldwood tells Gabriel that his share in the farm is much too small: he wants to increase the proportion, so that he can retire altogether eventually. If he marries Bathsheba, he adds—but Gabriel interrupts him and says not to speak of it yet. Boldwood says he’s come to understand that Gabriel has feelings for her too, but he admires Gabriel’s restraint, so he’d like to show his gratefulness and friendship. Gabriel leaves him uneasily, realizing that this passion has affected his reason.
Boldwood is increasingly confident that Bathsheba will agree to marry him, so much so that he’s willing to make plans for the future that involve specific economic decisions. Boldwood may understand that part of Gabriel’s unease comes from his feelings for Bathsheba, but not that he’s also uneasy about Boldwood’s own confidence.
Boldwood goes into his closet and opens a small circular case inside, gazing at the diamond ring within it. His butler calls to say that guests are arriving.
More proof of Boldwood’s renewed pride and confidence at Bathsheba’s answer.
Troy buttons up his overcoat: he’s made up his mind to go to the party. Pennyways asks why he doesn’t bide his time and write to Bathsheba, but Troy says he shouldn’t have to wait to reclaim what’s his. The bailiff thinks he should go abroad again rather than stir up such trouble, but Troy laughs off any danger. Pennyways realizes that he’ll need her good opinion again if she’s back with Troy: he declares that he does think her a good woman, though one can never tell from the outside. It’s 6:30, and Troy says he must go.
Troy too prepares to attend Boldwood party, an impulsive decision that clashes to a certain extent with his conniving ways. Indeed, Pennyways isn’t sure this is a good idea, probably in part given his own history, but Troy’s insistence on claiming his “property” overrides any other objections.