A morning meeting—the letter again
The scarlet and orange light outside the malthouse did not penetrate to its interior, which was, as usual, lighted by a rival glow of similar hue, radiating from the hearth.
The maltster, after having lain down in his clothes for a few hours, was now sitting beside a three-legged table, breakfasting off bread and bacon. This was eaten on the plateless system, which is performed by placing a slice of bread upon the table, the meat flat upon the bread, a mustard plaster upon the meat, and a pinch of salt upon the whole, then cutting them vertically downwards with a large pocket-knife till wood is reached, when the severed lump is impaled on the knife, elevated, and sent the proper way of food.
The maltster's lack of teeth appeared not to sensibly diminish his powers as a mill. He had been without them for so many years that toothlessness was felt less to be a defect than hard gums an acquisition. Indeed, he seemed to approach the grave as a hyperbolic curve approaches a straight line—less directly as he got nearer, till it was doubtful if he would ever reach it at all.
In the ashpit was a heap of potatoes roasting, and a boiling pipkin of charred bread, called "coffee", for the benefit of whomsoever should call, for Warren's was a sort of clubhouse, used as an alternative to the inn.
"I say, says I, we get a fine day, and then down comes a snapper at night," was a remark now suddenly heard spreading into the malthouse from the door, which had been opened the previous moment. The form of Henery Fray advanced to the fire, stamping the snow from his boots when about half-way there. The speech and entry had not seemed to be at all an abrupt beginning to the maltster, introductory matter being often omitted in this neighbourhood, both from word and deed, and the maltster having the same latitude allowed him, did not hurry to reply. He picked up a fragment of cheese, by pecking upon it with his knife, as a butcher picks up skewers.
Henery appeared in a drab kerseymere great-coat, buttoned over his smock-frock, the white skirts of the latter being visible to the distance of about a foot below the coat-tails, which, when you got used to the style of dress, looked natural enough, and even ornamental—it certainly was comfortable.
Matthew Moon, Joseph Poorgrass, and other carters and waggoners followed at his heels, with great lanterns dangling from their hands, which showed that they had just come from the cart-horse stables, where they had been busily engaged since four o'clock that morning.
"And how is she getting on without a baily?" the maltster inquired. Henery shook his head, and smiled one of the bitter smiles, dragging all the flesh of his forehead into a corrugated heap in the centre.
"She'll rue it—surely, surely!" he said. "Benjy Pennyways were not a true man or an honest baily—as big a betrayer as Judas Iscariot himself. But to think she can carr' on alone!" He allowed his head to swing laterally three or four times in silence. "Never in all my creeping up—never!"
This was recognized by all as the conclusion of some gloomy speech which had been expressed in thought alone during the shake of the head; Henery meanwhile retained several marks of despair upon his face, to imply that they would be required for use again directly he should go on speaking.
"All will be ruined, and ourselves too, or there's no meat in gentlemen's houses!" said Mark Clark.
"A headstrong maid, that's what she is—and won't listen to no advice at all. Pride and vanity have ruined many a cobbler's dog. Dear, dear, when I think o' it, I sorrows like a man in travel!"
"True, Henery, you do, I've heard ye," said Joseph Poorgrass in a voice of thorough attestation, and with a wire-drawn smile of misery.
"'Twould do a martel man no harm to have what's under her bonnet," said Billy Smallbury, who had just entered, bearing his one tooth before him. "She can spaik real language, and must have some sense somewhere. Do ye foller me?"
"I do, I do; but no baily—I deserved that place," wailed Henery, signifying wasted genius by gazing blankly at visions of a high destiny apparently visible to him on Billy Smallbury's smock-frock. "There, 'twas to be, I suppose. Your lot is your lot, and Scripture is nothing; for if you do good you don't get rewarded according to your works, but be cheated in some mean way out of your recompense."
"No, no; I don't agree with'ee there," said Mark Clark. "God's a perfect gentleman in that respect."
"Good works good pay, so to speak it," attested Joseph Poorgrass.
A short pause ensued, and as a sort of entr'acte Henery turned and blew out the lanterns, which the increase of daylight rendered no longer necessary even in the malthouse, with its one pane of glass.
"I wonder what a farmer-woman can want with a harpsichord, dulcimer, pianner, or whatever 'tis they d'call it?" said the maltster. "Liddy saith she've a new one."
"Got a pianner?"
"Ay. Seems her old uncle's things were not good enough for her. She've bought all but everything new. There's heavy chairs for the stout, weak and wiry ones for the slender; great watches, getting on to the size of clocks, to stand upon the chimbley-piece."
"Pictures, for the most part wonderful frames."
"And long horse-hair settles for the drunk, with horse-hair pillows at each end," said Mr. Clark. "Likewise looking-glasses for the pretty, and lying books for the wicked."
A firm loud tread was now heard stamping outside; the door was opened about six inches, and somebody on the other side exclaimed—
"Neighbours, have ye got room for a few new-born lambs?"
"Ay, sure, shepherd," said the conclave.
The door was flung back till it kicked the wall and trembled from top to bottom with the blow. Mr. Oak appeared in the entry with a steaming face, hay-bands wound about his ankles to keep out the snow, a leather strap round his waist outside the smock-frock, and looking altogether an epitome of the world's health and vigour. Four lambs hung in various embarrassing attitudes over his shoulders, and the dog George, whom Gabriel had contrived to fetch from Norcombe, stalked solemnly behind.
"Well, Shepherd Oak, and how's lambing this year, if I mid say it?" inquired Joseph Poorgrass.
"Terrible trying," said Oak. "I've been wet through twice a-day, either in snow or rain, this last fortnight. Cainy and I haven't tined our eyes to-night."
"A good few twins, too, I hear?"
"Too many by half. Yes; 'tis a very queer lambing this year. We shan't have done by Lady Day."
"And last year 'twer all over by Sexajessamine Sunday," Joseph remarked.
"Bring on the rest Cain," said Gabriel, "and then run back to the ewes. I'll follow you soon."
Cainy Ball—a cheery-faced young lad, with a small circular orifice by way of mouth, advanced and deposited two others, and retired as he was bidden. Oak lowered the lambs from their unnatural elevation, wrapped them in hay, and placed them round the fire.
"We've no lambing-hut here, as I used to have at Norcombe," said Gabriel, "and 'tis such a plague to bring the weakly ones to a house. If 'twasn't for your place here, malter, I don't know what I should do i' this keen weather. And how is it with you to-day, malter?"
"Oh, neither sick nor sorry, shepherd; but no younger."
"Sit down, Shepherd Oak," continued the ancient man of malt. "And how was the old place at Norcombe, when ye went for your dog? I should like to see the old familiar spot; but faith, I shouldn't know a soul there now."
"I suppose you wouldn't. 'Tis altered very much."
"Is it true that Dicky Hill's wooden cider-house is pulled down?"
"Oh yes—years ago, and Dicky's cottage just above it."
"Well, to be sure!"
"Yes; and Tompkins's old apple-tree is rooted that used to bear two hogsheads of cider; and no help from other trees."
"Rooted?—you don't say it! Ah! stirring times we live in—stirring times."
"And you can mind the old well that used to be in the middle of the place? That's turned into a solid iron pump with a large stone trough, and all complete."
"Dear, dear—how the face of nations alter, and what we live to see nowadays! Yes—and 'tis the same here. They've been talking but now of the mis'ess's strange doings."
"What have you been saying about her?" inquired Oak, sharply turning to the rest, and getting very warm.
"These middle-aged men have been pulling her over the coals for pride and vanity," said Mark Clark; "but I say, let her have rope enough. Bless her pretty face—shouldn't I like to do so—upon her cherry lips!" The gallant Mark Clark here made a peculiar and well known sound with his own.
"Mark," said Gabriel, sternly, "now you mind this! none of that dalliance-talk—that smack-and-coddle style of yours—about Miss Everdene. I don't allow it. Do you hear?"
"With all my heart, as I've got no chance," replied Mr. Clark, cordially.
"I suppose you've been speaking against her?" said Oak, turning to Joseph Poorgrass with a very grim look.
"No, no—not a word I—'tis a real joyful thing that she's no worse, that's what I say," said Joseph, trembling and blushing with terror. "Matthew just said—"
"Matthew Moon, what have you been saying?" asked Oak.
"I? Why ye know I wouldn't harm a worm—no, not one underground worm?" said Matthew Moon, looking very uneasy.
"Well, somebody has—and look here, neighbours," Gabriel, though one of the quietest and most gentle men on earth, rose to the occasion, with martial promptness and vigour. "That's my fist." Here he placed his fist, rather smaller in size than a common loaf, in the mathematical centre of the maltster's little table, and with it gave a bump or two thereon, as if to ensure that their eyes all thoroughly took in the idea of fistiness before he went further. "Now—the first man in the parish that I hear prophesying bad of our mistress, why" (here the fist was raised and let fall as Thor might have done with his hammer in assaying it)—"he'll smell and taste that—or I'm a Dutchman."
All earnestly expressed by their features that their minds did not wander to Holland for a moment on account of this statement, but were deploring the difference which gave rise to the figure; and Mark Clark cried "Hear, hear; just what I should ha' said." The dog George looked up at the same time after the shepherd's menace, and though he understood English but imperfectly, began to growl.
"Now, don't ye take on so, shepherd, and sit down!" said Henery, with a deprecating peacefulness equal to anything of the kind in Christianity.
"We hear that ye be a extraordinary good and clever man, shepherd," said Joseph Poorgrass with considerable anxiety from behind the maltster's bedstead, whither he had retired for safety. "'Tis a great thing to be clever, I'm sure," he added, making movements associated with states of mind rather than body; "we wish we were, don't we, neighbours?"
"Ay, that we do, sure," said Matthew Moon, with a small anxious laugh towards Oak, to show how very friendly disposed he was likewise.
"Who's been telling you I'm clever?" said Oak.
"'Tis blowed about from pillar to post quite common," said Matthew. "We hear that ye can tell the time as well by the stars as we can by the sun and moon, shepherd."
"Yes, I can do a little that way," said Gabriel, as a man of medium sentiments on the subject.
"And that ye can make sun-dials, and prent folks' names upon their waggons almost like copper-plate, with beautiful flourishes, and great long tails. A excellent fine thing for ye to be such a clever man, shepherd. Joseph Poorgrass used to prent to Farmer James Everdene's waggons before you came, and 'a could never mind which way to turn the J's and E's—could ye, Joseph?" Joseph shook his head to express how absolute was the fact that he couldn't. "And so you used to do 'em the wrong way, like this, didn't ye, Joseph?" Matthew marked on the dusty floor with his whip-handle
"And how Farmer James would cuss, and call thee a fool, wouldn't he, Joseph, when 'a seed his name looking so inside-out-like?" continued Matthew Moon with feeling.
"Ay—'a would," said Joseph, meekly. "But, you see, I wasn't so much to blame, for them J's and E's be such trying sons o' witches for the memory to mind whether they face backward or forward; and I always had such a forgetful memory, too."
"'Tis a very bad afiction for ye, being such a man of calamities in other ways."
"Well, 'tis; but a happy Providence ordered that it should be no worse, and I feel my thanks. As to shepherd, there, I'm sure mis'ess ought to have made ye her baily—such a fitting man for't as you be."
"I don't mind owning that I expected it," said Oak, frankly. "Indeed, I hoped for the place. At the same time, Miss Everdene has a right to be her own baily if she choose—and to keep me down to be a common shepherd only." Oak drew a slow breath, looked sadly into the bright ashpit, and seemed lost in thoughts not of the most hopeful hue.
The genial warmth of the fire now began to stimulate the nearly lifeless lambs to bleat and move their limbs briskly upon the hay, and to recognize for the first time the fact that they were born. Their noise increased to a chorus of baas, upon which Oak pulled the milk-can from before the fire, and taking a small tea-pot from the pocket of his smock-frock, filled it with milk, and taught those of the helpless creatures which were not to be restored to their dams how to drink from the spout—a trick they acquired with astonishing aptitude.
"And she don't even let ye have the skins of the dead lambs, I hear?" resumed Joseph Poorgrass, his eyes lingering on the operations of Oak with the necessary melancholy.
"I don't have them," said Gabriel.
"Ye be very badly used, shepherd," hazarded Joseph again, in the hope of getting Oak as an ally in lamentation after all. "I think she's took against ye—that I do."
"Oh no—not at all," replied Gabriel, hastily, and a sigh escaped him, which the deprivation of lamb skins could hardly have caused.
Before any further remark had been added a shade darkened the door, and Boldwood entered the malthouse, bestowing upon each a nod of a quality between friendliness and condescension.
"Ah! Oak, I thought you were here," he said. "I met the mail-cart ten minutes ago, and a letter was put into my hand, which I opened without reading the address. I believe it is yours. You must excuse the accident please."
"Oh yes—not a bit of difference, Mr. Boldwood—not a bit," said Gabriel, readily. He had not a correspondent on earth, nor was there a possible letter coming to him whose contents the whole parish would not have been welcome to peruse.
Oak stepped aside, and read the following in an unknown hand:—
Dear Friend,—I do not know your name, but I think these few lines will reach you, which I wrote to thank you for your kindness to me the night I left Weatherbury in a reckless way. I also return the money I owe you, which you will excuse my not keeping as a gift. All has ended well, and I am happy to say I am going to be married to the young man who has courted me for some time—Sergeant Troy, of the 11th Dragoon Guards, now quartered in this town. He would, I know, object to my having received anything except as a loan, being a man of great respectability and high honour—indeed, a nobleman by blood. I should be much obliged to you if you would keep the contents of this letter a secret for the present, dear friend. We mean to surprise Weatherbury by coming there soon as husband and wife, though I blush to state it to one nearly a stranger. The sergeant grew up in Weatherbury. Thanking you again for your kindness, I am, your sincere well-wisher, Fanny Robin.
"Have you read it, Mr. Boldwood?" said Gabriel; "if not, you had better do so. I know you are interested in Fanny Robin."
Boldwood read the letter and looked grieved.
"Fanny—poor Fanny! the end she is so confident of has not yet come, she should remember—and may never come. I see she gives no address."
"What sort of a man is this Sergeant Troy?" said Gabriel.
"H'm—I'm afraid not one to build much hope upon in such a case as this," the farmer murmured, "though he's a clever fellow, and up to everything. A slight romance attaches to him, too. His mother was a French governess, and it seems that a secret attachment existed between her and the late Lord Severn. She was married to a poor medical man, and soon after an infant was born; and while money was forthcoming all went on well. Unfortunately for her boy, his best friends died; and he got then a situation as second clerk at a lawyer's in Casterbridge. He stayed there for some time, and might have worked himself into a dignified position of some sort had he not indulged in the wild freak of enlisting. I have much doubt if ever little Fanny will surprise us in the way she mentions—very much doubt. A silly girl!—silly girl!"
The door was hurriedly burst open again, and in came running Cainy Ball out of breath, his mouth red and open, like the bell of a penny trumpet, from which he coughed with noisy vigour and great distension of face.
"Now, Cain Ball," said Oak, sternly, "why will you run so fast and lose your breath so? I'm always telling you of it."
"Oh—I—a puff of mee breath—went—the—wrong way, please, Mister Oak, and made me cough—hok—hok!"
"Well—what have you come for?"
"I've run to tell ye," said the junior shepherd, supporting his exhausted youthful frame against the doorpost, "that you must come directly. Two more ewes have twinned—that's what's the matter, Shepherd Oak."
"Oh, that's it," said Oak, jumping up, and dimissing for the present his thoughts on poor Fanny. "You are a good boy to run and tell me, Cain, and you shall smell a large plum pudding some day as a treat. But, before we go, Cainy, bring the tarpot, and we'll mark this lot and have done with 'em."
Oak took from his illimitable pockets a marking iron, dipped it into the pot, and imprinted on the buttocks of the infant sheep the initials of her he delighted to muse on—"B. E.," which signified to all the region round that henceforth the lambs belonged to Farmer Bathsheba Everdene, and to no one else.
"Now, Cainy, shoulder your two, and off. Good morning, Mr. Boldwood." The shepherd lifted the sixteen large legs and four small bodies he had himself brought, and vanished with them in the direction of the lambing field hard by—their frames being now in a sleek and hopeful state, pleasantly contrasting with their death's-door plight of half an hour before.
Boldwood followed him a little way up the field, hesitated, and turned back. He followed him again with a last resolve, annihilating return. On approaching the nook in which the fold was constructed, the farmer drew out his pocket-book, unfastened it, and allowed it to lie open on his hand. A letter was revealed—Bathsheba's.
"I was going to ask you, Oak," he said, with unreal carelessness, "if you know whose writing this is?"
Oak glanced into the book, and replied instantly, with a flushed face, "Miss Everdene's."
Oak had coloured simply at the consciousness of sounding her name. He now felt a strangely distressing qualm from a new thought. The letter could of course be no other than anonymous, or the inquiry would not have been necessary.
Boldwood mistook his confusion: sensitive persons are always ready with their "Is it I?" in preference to objective reasoning.
"The question was perfectly fair," he returned—and there was something incongruous in the serious earnestness with which he applied himself to an argument on a valentine. "You know it is always expected that privy inquiries will be made: that's where the—fun lies." If the word "fun" had been "torture," it could not have been uttered with a more constrained and restless countenance than was Boldwood's then.
Soon parting from Gabriel, the lonely and reserved man returned to his house to breakfast—feeling twinges of shame and regret at having so far exposed his mood by those fevered questions to a stranger. He again placed the letter on the mantelpiece, and sat down to think of the circumstances attending it by the light of Gabriel's information.