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The Three Strangers
by Thomas Hardy
Among the few features of agricultural England which retain an
appearance but little modified by the lapse of centuries, may be
reckoned the high, grassy and furzy downs, coombs, or ewe-leases,
as they are indifferently called, that fill a large area of
certain counties in the south and south-west. If any mark of
human occupation is met with hereon, it usually takes the form of
the solitary cottage of some shepherd.
Fifty years ago such a lonely cottage stood on such a down,
and may possibly be standing there now. In spite of its
loneliness, however, the spot, by actual measurement, was not
more than five miles from a county-town. Yet that affected it
little. Five miles of irregular upland, during the long inimical
seasons, with their sleets, snows, rains, and mists, afford
withdrawing space enough to isolate a Timon or a Nebuchadnezzar;
much less, in fair weather, to please that less repellent tribe,
the poets, philosophers, artists, and others who 'conceive and
meditate of pleasant things.'
Some old earthen camp or barrow, some clump of trees, at least
some starved fragment of ancient hedge is usually taken advantage
of in the erection of these forlorn dwellings. But, in the
present case, such a kind of shelter had been disregarded. Higher
Crowstairs, as the house was called, stood quite detached and
undefended. The only reason for its precise situation seemed to
be the crossing of two footpaths at right angles hard by, which
may have crossed there and thus for a good five hundred years.
Hence the house was exposed to the elements on all sides. But,
though the wind up here blew unmistakably when it did blow, and
the rain hit hard whenever it fell, the various weathers of the
winter season were not quite so formidable on the coomb as they
were imagined to be by dwellers on low ground. The raw rimes were
not so pernicious as in the hollows, and the frosts were scarcely
so severe. When the shepherd and his family who tenanted the
house were pitied for their sufferings from the exposure, they
said that upon the whole they were less inconvenienced by 'wuzzes
and flames' (hoarses and phlegms) than when they had lived by the
stream of a snug neighbouring valley.
The night of March 28, 182-, was precisely one of the nights
that were wont to call forth these expressions of commiseration.
The level rainstorm smote walls, slopes, and hedges like the
clothyard shafts of Senlac and Crecy. Such sheep and outdoor
animals as had no shelter stood with their buttocks to the winds;
while the tails of little birds trying to roost on some scraggy
thorn were blown inside-out like umbrellas. The gable-end of the
cottage was stained with wet, and the eavesdroppings flapped
against the wall. Yet never was commiseration for the shepherd
more misplaced. For that cheerful rustic was entertaining a large
party in glorification of the christening of his second girl.
The guests had arrived before the rain began to fall, and they
were all now assembled in the chief or living room of the
dwelling. A glance into the apartment at eight o'clock on this
eventful evening would have resulted in the opinion that it was
as cosy and comfortable a nook as could be wished for in
boisterous weather. The calling of its inhabitant was proclaimed
by a number of highly- polished sheep-crooks without stems that
were hung ornamentally over the fireplace, the curl of each
shining crook varying from the antiquated type engraved in the
patriarchal pictures of old family Bibles to the most approved
fashion of the last local sheep-fair. The room was lighted by
half-a-dozen candles, having wicks only a trifle smaller than the
grease which enveloped them, in candlesticks that were never used
but at high-days, holy-days, and family feasts. The lights were
scattered about the room, two of them standing on the chimney-piece.
This position of candles was in itself significant. Candles on
the chimney-piece always meant a party.
On the hearth, in front of a back-brand to give substance,
blazed a fire of thorns, that crackled 'like the laughter of the
Nineteen persons were gathered here. Of these, five women,
wearing gowns of various bright hues, sat in chairs along the
wall; girls shy and not shy filled the window-bench; four men,
including Charley Jake the hedge-carpenter, Elijah New the parish-clerk,
and John Pitcher, a neighbouring dairyman, the shepherd's father-in-law,
lolled in the settle; a young man and maid, who were blushing
over tentative pourparlers on a life-companionship, sat beneath
the corner-cupboard; and an elderly engaged man of fifty or
upward moved restlessly about from spots where his betrothed was
not to the spot where she was. Enjoyment was pretty general, and
so much the more prevailed in being unhampered by conventional
restrictions. Absolute confidence in each other's good opinion
begat perfect ease, while the finishing stroke of manner,
amounting to a truly princely serenity, was lent to the majority
by the absence of any expression or trait denoting that they
wished to get on in the world, enlarge their minds, or do any
eclipsing thing whatever--which nowadays so generally nips the
bloom and bonhomie of all except the two extremes of the social
Shepherd Fennel had married well, his wife being a dairyman's
daughter from a vale at a distance, who brought fifty guineas in
her pocket--and kept them there, till they should be required for
ministering to the needs of a coming family. This frugal woman
had been somewhat exercised as to the character that should be
given to the gathering. A sit-still party had its advantages; but
an undisturbed position of ease in chairs and settles was apt to
lead on the men to such an unconscionable deal of toping that
they would sometimes fairly drink the house dry. A dancing-party
was the alternative; but this, while avoiding the foregoing
objection on the score of good drink, had a counterbalancing
disadvantage in the matter of good victuals, the ravenous
appetites engendered by the exercise causing immense havoc in the
buttery. Shepherdess Fennel fell back upon the intermediate plan
of mingling short dances with short periods of talk and singing,
so as to hinder any ungovernable rage in either. But this scheme
was entirely confined to her own gentle mind: the shepherd
himself was in the mood to exhibit the most reckless phases of
The fiddler was a boy of those parts, about twelve years of
age, who had a wonderful dexterity in jigs and reels, though his
fingers were so small and short as to necessitate a constant
shifting for the high notes, from which he scrambled back to the
first position with sounds not of unmixed purity of tone. At
seven the shrill tweedle- dee of this youngster had begun,
accompanied by a booming ground- bass from Elijah New, the parish-clerk,
who had thoughtfully brought with him his favourite musical
instrument, the serpent. Dancing was instantaneous, Mrs. Fennel
privately enjoining the players on no account to let the dance
exceed the length of a quarter of an hour.
But Elijah and the boy, in the excitement of their position,
quite forgot the injunction. Moreover, Oliver Giles, a man of
seventeen, one of the dancers, who was enamoured of his partner,
a fair girl of thirty-three rolling years, had recklessly handed
a new crown-piece to the musicians, as a bribe to keep going as
long as they had muscle and wind. Mrs. Fennel, seeing the steam
begin to generate on the countenances of her guests, crossed over
and touched the fiddler's elbow and put her hand on the serpent's
mouth. But they took no notice, and fearing she might lose her
character of genial hostess if she were to interfere too
markedly, she retired and sat down helpless. And so the dance
whizzed on with cumulative fury, the performers moving in their
planet-like courses, direct and retrograde, from apogee to
perigee, till the hand of the well-kicked clock at the bottom of
the room had travelled over the circumference of an hour.
While these cheerful events were in course of enactment within
Fennel's pastoral dwelling, an incident having considerable
bearing on the party had occurred in the gloomy night without.
Mrs. Fennel's concern about the growing fierceness of the dance
corresponded in point of time with the ascent of a human figure
to the solitary hill of Higher Crowstairs from the direction of
the distant town. This personage strode on through the rain
without a pause, following the little-worn path which, further on
in its course, skirted the shepherd's cottage.
It was nearly the time of full moon, and on this account,
though the sky was lined with a uniform sheet of dripping cloud,
ordinary objects out of doors were readily visible. The sad wan
light revealed the lonely pedestrian to be a man of supple frame;
his gait suggested that he had somewhat passed the period of
perfect and instinctive agility, though not so far as to be
otherwise than rapid of motion when occasion required. At a rough
guess, he might have been about forty years of age. He appeared
tall, but a recruiting sergeant, or other person accustomed to
the judging of men's heights by the eye, would have discerned
that this was chiefly owing to his gauntness, and that he was not
more than five-feet-eight or nine.
Notwithstanding the regularity of his tread, there was caution
in it, as in that of one who mentally feels his way; and despite
the fact that it was not a black coat nor a dark garment of any
sort that he wore, there was something about him which suggested
that he naturally belonged to the black-coated tribes of men. His
clothes were of fustian, and his boots hobnailed, yet in his
progress he showed not the mud-accustomed bearing of hobnailed
and fustianed peasantry.
By the time that he had arrived abreast of the shepherd's
premises the rain came down, or rather came along, with yet more
determined violence. The outskirts of the little settlement
partially broke the force of wind and rain, and this induced him
to stand still. The most salient of the shepherd's domestic
erections was an empty sty at the forward corner of his hedgeless
garden, for in these latitudes the principle of masking the
homelier features of your establishment by a conventional
frontage was unknown. The traveller's eye was attracted to this
small building by the pallid shine of the wet slates that covered
it. He turned aside, and, finding it empty, stood under the pent-roof
While he stood, the boom of the serpent within the adjacent
house, and the lesser strains of the fiddler, reached the spot as
an accompaniment to the surging hiss of the flying rain on the
sod, its louder beating on the cabbage-leaves of the garden, on
the eight or ten beehives just discernible by the path, and its
dripping from the eaves into a row of buckets and pans that had
been placed under the walls of the cottage. For at Higher
Crowstairs, as at all such elevated domiciles, the grand
difficulty of housekeeping was an insufficiency of water; and a
casual rainfall was utilized by turning out, as catchers, every
utensil that the house contained. Some queer stories might be
told of the contrivances for economy in suds and dish-waters that
are absolutely necessitated in upland habitations during the
droughts of summer. But at this season there were no such
exigencies; a mere acceptance of what the skies bestowed was
sufficient for an abundant store.
At last the notes of the serpent ceased and the house was
silent. This cessation of activity aroused the solitary
pedestrian from the reverie into which he had lapsed, and,
emerging from the shed, with an apparently new intention, he
walked up the path to the house- door. Arrived here, his first
act was to kneel down on a large stone beside the row of vessels,
and to drink a copious draught from one of them. Having quenched
his thirst he rose and lifted his hand to knock, but paused with
his eye upon the panel. Since the dark surface of the wood
revealed absolutely nothing, it was evident that he must be
mentally looking through the door, as if he wished to measure
thereby all the possibilities that a house of this sort might
include, and how they might bear upon the question of his entry.
In his indecision he turned and surveyed the scene around. Not
a soul was anywhere visible. The garden-path stretched downward
from his feet, gleaming like the track of a snail; the roof of
the little well (mostly dry), the well-cover, the top rail of the
garden-gate, were varnished with the same dull liquid glaze;
while, far away in the vale, a faint whiteness of more than usual
extent showed that the rivers were high in the meads. Beyond all
this winked a few bleared lamplights through the beating drops--lights
that denoted the situation of the county-town from which he had
appeared to come. The absence of all notes of life in that
direction seemed to clinch his intentions, and he knocked at the
Within, a desultory chat had taken the place of movement and
musical sound. The hedge-carpenter was suggesting a song to the
company, which nobody just then was inclined to undertake, so
that the knock afforded a not unwelcome diversion.
'Walk in!' said the shepherd promptly.
The latch clicked upward, and out of the night our pedestrian
appeared upon the door-mat. The shepherd arose, snuffed two of
the nearest candles, and turned to look at him.
Their light disclosed that the stranger was dark in complexion
and not unprepossessing as to feature. His hat, which for a
moment he did not remove, hung low over his eyes, without
concealing that they were large, open, and determined, moving
with a flash rather than a glance round the room. He seemed
pleased with his survey, and, baring his shaggy head, said, in a
rich deep voice, 'The rain is so heavy, friends, that I ask leave
to come in and rest awhile.'
'To be sure, stranger,' said the shepherd. 'And faith, you've
been lucky in choosing your time, for we are having a bit of a
fling for a glad cause--though, to be sure, a man could hardly
wish that glad cause to happen more than once a year.'
'Nor less,' spoke up a woman. 'For 'tis best to get your
family over and done with, as soon as you can, so as to be all
the earlier out of the fag o't.'
'And what may be this glad cause?' asked the stranger.
'A birth and christening,' said the shepherd.
The stranger hoped his host might not be made unhappy either
by too many or too few of such episodes, and being invited by a
gesture to a pull at the mug, he readily acquiesced. His manner,
which, before entering, had been so dubious, was now altogether
that of a careless and candid man.
'Late to be traipsing athwart this coomb--hey?' said the
engaged man of fifty.
'Late it is, master, as you say.--I'll take a seat in the
chimney- corner, if you have nothing to urge against it, ma'am;
for I am a little moist on the side that was next the rain.'
Mrs. Shepherd Fennel assented, and made room for the self-invited
comer, who, having got completely inside the chimney-corner,
stretched out his legs and his arms with the expansiveness of a
person quite at home.
'Yes, I am rather cracked in the vamp,' he said freely, seeing
that the eyes of the shepherd's wife fell upon his boots, 'and I
am not well fitted either. I have had some rough times lately,
and have been forced to pick up what I can get in the way of
wearing, but I must find a suit better fit for working-days when
I reach home.'
'One of hereabouts?' she inquired.
'Not quite that--further up the country.'
'I thought so. And so be I; and by your tongue you come from
'But you would hardly have heard of me,' he said quickly. 'My
time would be long before yours, ma'am, you see.'
This testimony to the youthfulness of his hostess had the
effect of stopping her cross-examination.
'There is only one thing more wanted to make me happy,'
continued the new-comer. 'And that is a little baccy, which I am
sorry to say I am out of.'
'I'll fill your pipe,' said the shepherd.
'I must ask you to lend me a pipe likewise.'
'A smoker, and no pipe about 'ee?'
'I have dropped it somewhere on the road.'
The shepherd filled and handed him a new clay pipe, saying, as
he did so, 'Hand me your baccy-box--I'll fill that too, now I am
The man went through the movement of searching his pockets.
'Lost that too?' said his entertainer, with some surprise.
'I am afraid so,' said the man with some confusion. 'Give it
to me in a screw of paper.' Lighting his pipe at the candle with
a suction that drew the whole flame into the bowl, he resettled
himself in the corner and bent his looks upon the faint steam
from his damp legs, as if he wished to say no more.
Meanwhile the general body of guests had been taking little
notice of this visitor by reason of an absorbing discussion in
which they were engaged with the band about a tune for the next
dance. The matter being settled, they were about to stand up when
an interruption came in the shape of another knock at the door.
At sound of the same the man in the chimney-corner took up the
poker and began stirring the brands as if doing it thoroughly
were the one aim of his existence; and a second time the shepherd
said, 'Walk in!' In a moment another man stood upon the straw-woven
door-mat. He too was a stranger.
This individual was one of a type radically different from the
first. There was more of the commonplace in his manner, and a
certain jovial cosmopolitanism sat upon his features. He was
several years older than the first arrival, his hair being
slightly frosted, his eyebrows bristly, and his whiskers cut back
from his cheeks. His face was rather full and flabby, and yet it
was not altogether a face without power. A few grog-blossoms
marked the neighbourhood of his nose. He flung back his long drab
greatcoat, revealing that beneath it he wore a suit of cinder-gray
shade throughout, large heavy seals, of some metal or other that
would take a polish, dangling from his fob as his only personal
ornament. Shaking the water-drops from his low-crowned glazed
hat, he said, 'I must ask for a few minutes' shelter, comrades,
or I shall be wetted to my skin before I get to Casterbridge.'
'Make yourself at home, master,' said the shepherd, perhaps a
trifle less heartily than on the first occasion. Not that Fennel
had the least tinge of niggardliness in his composition; but the
room was far from large, spare chairs were not numerous, and damp
companions were not altogether desirable at close quarters for
the women and girls in their bright-coloured gowns.
However, the second comer, after taking off his greatcoat, and
hanging his hat on a nail in one of the ceiling-beams as if he
had been specially invited to put it there, advanced and sat down
at the table. This had been pushed so closely into the chimney-corner,
to give all available room to the dancers, that its inner edge
grazed the elbow of the man who had ensconced himself by the
fire; and thus the two strangers were brought into close
companionship. They nodded to each other by way of breaking the
ice of unacquaintance, and the first stranger handed his
neighbour the family mug--a huge vessel of brown ware, having its
upper edge worn away like a threshold by the rub of whole
generations of thirsty lips that had gone the way of all flesh,
and bearing the following inscription burnt upon its rotund side
in yellow letters
THERE IS NO FUN UNTiLL i CUM.
The other man, nothing loth, raised the mug to his lips, and
drank on, and on, and on--till a curious blueness overspread the
countenance of the shepherd's wife, who had regarded with no
little surprise the first stranger's free offer to the second of
what did not belong to him to dispense.
'I knew it!' said the toper to the shepherd with much
satisfaction. 'When I walked up your garden before coming in, and
saw the hives all of a row, I said to myself; "Where there's
bees there's honey, and where there's honey there's mead."
But mead of such a truly comfortable sort as this I really didn't
expect to meet in my older days.' He took yet another pull at the
mug, till it assumed an ominous elevation.
'Glad you enjoy it!' said the shepherd warmly.
'It is goodish mead,' assented Mrs. Fennel, with an absence of
enthusiasm which seemed to say that it was possible to buy praise
for one's cellar at too heavy a price. 'It is trouble enough to
make--and really I hardly think we shall make any more. For honey
sells well, and we ourselves can make shift with a drop o' small
mead and metheglin for common use from the comb-washings."
'O, but you'll never have the heart!' reproachfully cried the
stranger in cinder-gray, after taking up the mug a third time and
setting it down empty. 'I love mead, when 'tis old like this, as
I love to go to church o' Sundays, or to relieve the needy any
day of the week.'
'Ha, ha, ha!' said the man in the chimney-corner, who, in
spite of the taciturnity induced by the pipe of tobacco, could
not or would not refrain from this slight testimony to his
Now the old mead of those days, brewed of the purest first-year
or maiden honey, four pounds to the gallon--with its due
complement of white of eggs, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, mace,
rosemary, yeast, and processes of working, bottling, and
cellaring--tasted remarkably strong; but it did not taste so
strong as it actually was. Hence, presently, the stranger in
cinder-gray at the table, moved by its creeping influence,
unbuttoned his waistcoat, threw himself back in his chair, spread
his legs, and made his presence felt in various ways.
'Well, well, as I say,' he resumed, 'I am going to
Casterbridge, and to Casterbridge I must go. I should have been
almost there by this time; but the rain drove me into your
dwelling, and I'm not sorry for it.'
'You don't live in Casterbridge?' said the shepherd.
'Not as yet; though I shortly mean to move there.'
'Going to set up in trade, perhaps?'
'No, no,' said the shepherd's wife. 'It is easy to see that
the gentleman is rich, and don't want to work at anything.'
The cinder-gray stranger paused, as if to consider whether he
would accept that definition of himself. He presently rejected it
by answering, 'Rich is not quite the word for me, dame. I do
work, and I must work. And even if I only get to Casterbridge by
midnight I must begin work there at eight to-morrow morning. Yes,
het or wet, blow or snow, famine or sword, my day's work to-morrow
must be done.'
'Poor man! Then, in spite o' seeming, you be worse off than
we?' replied the shepherd's wife.
''Tis the nature of my trade, men and maidens. 'Tis the nature
of my trade more than my poverty . . . But really and truly I
must up and off, or I shan't get a lodging in the town.' However,
the speaker did not move, and directly added, 'There's time for
one more draught of friendship before I go; and I'd perform it at
once if the mug were not dry.'
'Here's a mug o' small,' said Mrs. Fennel. 'Small, we call it,
though to be sure 'tis only the first wash o' the combs.'
'No,' said the stranger disdainfully. 'I won't spoil your
first kindness by partaking o' your second.'
'Certainly not,' broke in Fennel. 'We don't increase and
multiply every day, and I'll fill the mug again.' He went away to
the dark place under the stairs where the barrel stood. The
shepherdess followed him.
'Why should you do this?' she said reproachfully, as soon as
they were alone. 'He's emptied it once, though it held enough for
ten people; and now he's not contented wi' the small, but must
needs call for more o' the strong! And a stranger unbeknown to
any of us. For my part, I don't like the look o' the man at all.'
'But he's in the house, my honey; and 'tis a wet night, and a
christening. Daze it, what's a cup of mead more or less? There'll
be plenty more next bee-burning.'
'Very well--this time, then,' she answered, looking wistfully
at the barrel. 'But what is the man's calling, and where is he
one of; that he should come in and join us like this?'
'I don't know. I'll ask him again.'
The catastrophe of having the mug drained dry at one pull by
the stranger in cinder-gray was effectually guarded against this
time by Mrs. Fennel. She poured out his allowance in a small cup,
keeping the large one at a discreet distance from him. When he
had tossed off his portion the shepherd renewed his inquiry about
the stranger's occupation.
The latter did not immediately reply, and the man in the
chimney- corner, with sudden demonstrativeness, said, 'Anybody
may know my trade--I'm a wheelwright.'
'A very good trade for these parts,' said the shepherd.
'And anybody may know mine--if they've the sense to find it
out,' said the stranger in cinder-gray.
'You may generally tell what a man is by his claws,' observed
the hedge-carpenter, looking at his own hands. 'My fingers be as
full of thorns as an old pin-cushion is of pins.'
The hands of the man in the chimney-corner instinctively
sought the shade, and he gazed into the fire as he resumed his
pipe. The man at the table took up the hedge-carpenter's remark,
and added smartly, 'True; but the oddity of my trade is that,
instead of setting a mark upon me, it sets a mark upon my
No observation being offered by anybody in elucidation of this
enigma, the shepherd's wife once more called for a song. The same
obstacles presented themselves as at the former time--one had no
voice, another had forgotten the first verse. The stranger at the
table, whose soul had now risen to a good working temperature,
relieved the difficulty by exclaiming that, to start the company,
he would sing himself. Thrusting one thumb into the arm-hole of
his waistcoat, he waved the other hand in the air, and, with an
extemporizing gaze at the shining sheep-crooks above the
'O my trade it is the rarest one, Simple shepherds all - My
trade is a sight to see; For my customers I tie, and take them up
on high, And waft 'em to a far countree!'
The room was silent when he had finished the verse--with one
exception, that of the man in the chimney-corner, who, at the
singer's word, 'Chorus! 'joined him in a deep bass voice of
musical relish -
'And waft 'em to a far countree!'
Oliver Giles, John Pitcher the dairyman, the parish-clerk, the
engaged man of fifty, the row of young women against the wall,
seemed lost in thought not of the gayest kind. The shepherd
looked meditatively on the ground, the shepherdess gazed keenly
at the singer, and with some suspicion; she was doubting whether
this stranger were merely singing an old song from recollection,
or was composing one there and then for the occasion. All were as
perplexed at the obscure revelation as the guests at Belshazzar's
Feast, except the man in the chimney-corner, who quietly said,
'Second verse, stranger,' and smoked on.
The singer thoroughly moistened himself from his lips inwards,
and went on with the next stanza as requested:-
'My tools are but common ones, Simple shepherds all - My tools
are no sight to see: A little hempen string, and a post whereon
to swing, Are implements enough for me!'
Shepherd Fennel glanced round. There was no longer any doubt
that the stranger was answering his question rhythmically. The
guests one and all started back with suppressed exclamations. The
young woman engaged to the man of fifty fainted half-way, and
would have proceeded, but finding him wanting in alacrity for
catching her she sat down trembling.
'O, he's the--!' whispered the people in the background,
mentioning the name of an ominous public officer. 'He's come to
do it! 'Tis to be at Casterbridge jail to-morrow--the man for
sheep-stealing-- the poor clock-maker we heard of; who used to
live away at Shottsford and had no work to do--Timothy Summers,
whose family were a-starving, and so he went out of Shottsford by
the high-road, and took a sheep in open daylight, defying the
farmer and the farmer's wife and the farmer's lad, and every man
jack among 'em. He' (and they nodded towards the stranger of the
deadly trade) 'is come from up the country to do it because
there's not enough to do in his own county-town, and he's got the
place here now our own county man's dead; he's going to live in
the same cottage under the prison wall.'
The stranger in cinder-gray took no notice of this whispered
string of observations, but again wetted his lips. Seeing that
his friend in the chimney-corner was the only one who
reciprocated his joviality in any way, he held out his cup
towards that appreciative comrade, who also held out his own.
They clinked together, the eyes of the rest of the room hanging
upon the singer's actions. He parted his lips for the third
verse; but at that moment another knock was audible upon the door.
This time the knock was faint and hesitating.
The company seemed scared; the shepherd looked with
consternation towards the entrance, and it was with some effort
that he resisted his alarmed wife's deprecatory glance, and
uttered for the third time the welcoming words, 'Walk in!'
The door was gently opened, and another man stood upon the mat.
He, like those who had preceded him, was a stranger. This time it
was a short, small personage, of fair complexion, and dressed in
a decent suit of dark clothes.
'Can you tell me the way to--?' he began: when, gazing round
the room to observe the nature of the company amongst whom he had
fallen, his eyes lighted on the stranger in cinder-gray. It was
just at the instant when the latter, who had thrown his mind into
his song with such a will that he scarcely heeded the
interruption, silenced all whispers and inquiries by bursting
into his third verse:-
'To-morrow is my working day, Simple shepherds all - To-morrow
is a working day for me: For the farmer's sheep is slain, and the
lad who did it ta'en, And on his soul may God ha' merc-y!'
The stranger in the chimney-corner, waving cups with the
singer so heartily that his mead splashed over on the hearth,
repeated in his bass voice as before:-
'And on his soul may God ha' merc-y!'
All this time the third stranger had been standing in the
doorway. Finding now that he did not come forward or go on
speaking, the guests particularly regarded him. They noticed to
their surprise that he stood before them the picture of abject
terror--his knees trembling, his hand shaking so violently that
the door-latch by which he supported himself rattled audibly: his
white lips were parted, and his eyes fixed on the merry officer
of justice in the middle of the room. A moment more and he had
turned, closed the door, and fled.
'What a man can it be?' said the shepherd.
The rest, between the awfulness of their late discovery and
the odd conduct of this third visitor, looked as if they knew not
what to think, and said nothing. Instinctively they withdrew
further and further from the grim gentleman in their midst, whom
some of them seemed to take for the Prince of Darkness himself;
till they formed a remote circle, an empty space of floor being
left between them and him -
' . . . circulus, cujus centrum diabolus.'
The room was so silent--though there were more than twenty
people in it--that nothing could be heard but the patter of the
rain against the window-shutters, accompanied by the occasional
hiss of a stray drop that fell down the chimney into the fire,
and the steady puffing of the man in the corner, who had now
resumed his pipe of long clay.
The stillness was unexpectedly broken. The distant sound of a
gun reverberated through the air--apparently from the direction
of the county-town.
'Be jiggered!' cried the stranger who had sung the song,
'What does that mean?' asked several.
'A prisoner escaped from the jail--that's what it means.'
All listened. The sound was repeated, and none of them spoke
but the man in the chimney-corner, who said quietly, 'I've often
been told that in this county they fire a gun at such times; but
I never heard it till now.'
'I wonder if it is MY man?' murmured the personage in cinder-gray.
'Surely it is!' said the shepherd involuntarily. 'And surely
we've zeed him! That little man who looked in at the door by now,
and quivered like a leaf when he zeed ye and heard your song!'
'His teeth chattered, and the breath went out of his body,'
said the dairyman.
'And his heart seemed to sink within him like a stone,' said
'And he bolted as if he'd been shot at,' said the hedge-carpenter.
'True--his teeth chattered, and his heart seemed to sink; and
he bolted as if he'd been shot at,' slowly summed up the man in
'I didn't notice it,' remarked the hangman.
'We were all a-wondering what made him run off in such a
fright,' faltered one of the women against the wall, 'and now
The firing of the alarm-gun went on at intervals, low and
sullenly, and their suspicions became a certainty. The sinister
gentleman in cinder-gray roused himself. 'Is there a constable
here?' he asked, in thick tones. 'If so, let him step forward.'
The engaged man of fifty stepped quavering out from the wall,
his betrothed beginning to sob on the back of the chair.
'You are a sworn constable?'
'I be, sir.'
'Then pursue the criminal at once, with assistance, and bring
him back here. He can't have gone far.'
'I will, sir, I will--when I've got my staff. I'll go home and
get it, and come sharp here, and start in a body.'
'Staff!--never mind your staff; the man'll be gone!'
'But I can't do nothing without my staff--can I, William, and
John, and Charles Jake? No; for there's the king's royal crown a
painted on en in yaller and gold, and the lion and the unicorn,
so as when I raise en up and hit my prisoner, 'tis made a lawful
blow thereby. I wouldn't 'tempt to take up a man without my staff--no,
not I. If I hadn't the law to gie me courage, why, instead o' my
taking up him he might take up me!'
'Now, I'm a king's man myself; and can give you authority
enough for this,' said the formidable officer in gray. 'Now then,
all of ye, be ready. Have ye any lanterns?'
'Yes--have ye any lanterns?--I demand it!' said the constable.
'And the rest of you able-bodied--'
'Able-bodied men--yes--the rest of ye!' said the constable.
'Have you some good stout staves and pitch-forks--'
'Staves and pitchforks--in the name o' the law! And take 'em
in yer hands and go in quest, and do as we in authority tell ye!'
Thus aroused, the men prepared to give chase. The evidence
was, indeed, though circumstantial, so convincing, that but
little argument was needed to show the shepherd's guests that
after what they had seen it would look very much like connivance
if they did not instantly pursue the unhappy third stranger, who
could not as yet have gone more than a few hundred yards over
such uneven country.
A shepherd is always well provided with lanterns; and,
lighting these hastily, and with hurdle-staves in their hands,
they poured out of the door, taking a direction along the crest
of the hill, away from the town, the rain having fortunately a
Disturbed by the noise, or possibly by unpleasant dreams of
her baptism, the child who had been christened began to cry heart-
brokenly in the room overhead. These notes of grief came down
through the chinks of the floor to the ears of the women below,
who jumped up one by one, and seemed glad of the excuse to ascend
and comfort the baby, for the incidents of the last half-hour
greatly oppressed them. Thus in the space of two or three minutes
the room on the ground-floor was deserted quite.
But it was not for long. Hardly had the sound of footsteps
died away when a man returned round the corner of the house from
the direction the pursuers had taken. Peeping in at the door, and
seeing nobody there, he entered leisurely. It was the stranger of
the chimney-corner, who had gone out with the rest. The motive of
his return was shown by his helping himself to a cut piece of
skimmer-cake that lay on a ledge beside where he had sat, and
which he had apparently forgotten to take with him. He also
poured out half a cup more mead from the quantity that remained,
ravenously eating and drinking these as he stood. He had not
finished when another figure came in just as quietly--his friend
'O--you here?' said the latter, smiling. 'I thought you had
gone to help in the capture.' And this speaker also revealed the
object of his return by looking solicitously round for the
fascinating mug of old mead.
'And I thought you had gone,' said the other, continuing his
skimmer-cake with some effort.
'Well, on second thoughts, I felt there were enough without
me,' said the first confidentially, 'and such a night as it is,
too. Besides, 'tis the business o' the Government to take care of
its criminals--not mine.'
'True; so it is. And I felt as you did, that there were enough
'I don't want to break my limbs running over the humps and
hollows of this wild country.'
'Nor I neither, between you and me.'
'These shepherd-people are used to it--simple-minded souls,
you know, stirred up to anything in a moment. They'll have him
ready for me before the morning, and no trouble to me at all.'
'They'll have him, and we shall have saved ourselves all
labour in the matter.'
'True, true. Well, my way is to Casterbridge; and 'tis as much
as my legs will do to take me that far. Going the same way?'
'No, I am sorry to say! I have to get home over there' (he
nodded indefinitely to the right), 'and I feel as you do, that it
is quite enough for my legs to do before bedtime.'
The other had by this time finished the mead in the mug, after
which, shaking hands heartily at the door, and wishing each other
well, they went their several ways.
In the meantime the company of pursuers had reached the end of
the hog's-back elevation which dominated this part of the down.
They had decided on no particular plan of action; and, finding
that the man of the baleful trade was no longer in their company,
they seemed quite unable to form any such plan now. They
descended in all directions down the hill, and straightway
several of the party fell into the snare set by Nature for all
misguided midnight ramblers over this part of the cretaceous
formation. The 'lanchets,' or flint slopes, which belted the
escarpment at intervals of a dozen yards, took the less cautious
ones unawares, and losing their footing on the rubbly steep they
slid sharply downwards, the lanterns rolling from their hands to
the bottom, and there lying on their sides till the horn was
When they had again gathered themselves together, the
shepherd, as the man who knew the country best, took the lead,
and guided them round these treacherous inclines. The lanterns,
which seemed rather to dazzle their eyes and warn the fugitive
than to assist them in the exploration, were extinguished, due
silence was observed; and in this more rational order they
plunged into the vale. It was a grassy, briery, moist defile,
affording some shelter to any person who had sought it; but the
party perambulated it in vain, and ascended on the other side.
Here they wandered apart, and after an interval closed together
again to report progress.
At the second time of closing in they found themselves near a
lonely ash, the single tree on this part of the coomb, probably
sown there by a passing bird some fifty years before. And here,
standing a little to one side of the trunk, as motionless as the
trunk itself; appeared the man they were in quest of; his outline
being well defined against the sky beyond. The band noiselessly
drew up and faced him.
'Your money or your life!' said the constable sternly to the
'No, no,' whispered John Pitcher. ''Tisn't our side ought to
say that. That's the doctrine of vagabonds like him, and we be on
the side of the law.'
'Well, well,' replied the constable impatiently; 'I must say
something, mustn't I? and if you had all the weight o' this
undertaking upon your mind, perhaps you'd say the wrong thing too!--
Prisoner at the bar, surrender, in the name of the Father--the
Crown, I mane!'
The man under the tree seemed now to notice them for the first
time, and, giving them no opportunity whatever for exhibiting
their courage, he strolled slowly towards them. He was, indeed,
the little man, the third stranger; but his trepidation had in a
great measure gone.
'Well, travellers,' he said, 'did I hear ye speak to me?'
'You did: you've got to come and be our prisoner at once!'
said the constable. 'We arrest 'ee on the charge of not biding in
Casterbridge jail in a decent proper manner to be hung to-morrow
morning. Neighbours, do your duty, and seize the culpet!'
On hearing the charge, the man seemed enlightened, and, saying
not another word, resigned himself with preternatural civility to
the search-party, who, with their staves in their hands,
surrounded him on all sides, and marched him back towards the
It was eleven o'clock by the time they arrived. The light
shining from the open door, a sound of men's voices within,
proclaimed to them as they approached the house that some new
events had arisen in their absence. On entering they discovered
the shepherd's living room to be invaded by two officers from
Casterbridge jail, and a well-known magistrate who lived at the
nearest country-seat, intelligence of the escape having become
'Gentlemen,' said the constable, 'I have brought back your man--not
without risk and danger; but every one must do his duty! He is
inside this circle of able-bodied persons, who have lent me
useful aid, considering their ignorance of Crown work. Men, bring
forward your prisoner!' And the third stranger was led to the
'Who is this?' said one of the officials.
'The man,' said the constable.
'Certainly not,' said the turnkey; and the first corroborated
'But how can it be otherwise?' asked the constable. 'Or why
was he so terrified at sight o' the singing instrument of the law
who sat there?' Here he related the strange behaviour of the
third stranger on entering the house during the hangman's song.
'Can't understand it,' said the officer coolly. 'All I know is
that it is not the condemned man. He's quite a different
character from this one; a gauntish fellow, with dark hair and
eyes, rather good- looking, and with a musical bass voice that if
you heard it once you'd never mistake as long as you lived.'
'Why, souls--'twas the man in the chimney-corner!'
'Hey--what?' said the magistrate, coming forward after
inquiring particulars from the shepherd in the background.
'Haven't you got the man after all?'
'Well, sir,' said the constable, 'he's the man we were in
search of, that's true; and yet he's not the man we were in
search of. For the man we were in search of was not the man we
wanted, sir, if you understand my every-day way; for 'twas the
man in the chimney- corner!'
'A pretty kettle of fish altogether!' said the magistrate.
'You had better start for the other man at once.'
The prisoner now spoke for the first time. The mention of the
man in the chimney-corner seemed to have moved him as nothing
else could do. 'Sir,' he said, stepping forward to the
magistrate, 'take no more trouble about me. The time is come when
I may as well speak. I have done nothing; my crime is that the
condemned man is my brother. Early this afternoon I left home at
Shottsford to tramp it all the way to Casterbridge jail to bid
him farewell. I was benighted, and called here to rest and ask
the way. When I opened the door I saw before me the very man, my
brother, that I thought to see in the condemned cell at
Casterbridge. He was in this chimney- corner; and jammed close to
him, so that he could not have got out if he had tried, was the
executioner who'd come to take his life, singing a song about it
and not knowing that it was his victim who was close by, joining
in to save appearances. My brother looked a glance of agony at
me, and I knew he meant, "Don't reveal what you see; my life
depends on it." I was so terror-struck that I could hardly
stand, and, not knowing what I did, I turned and hurried away.'
The narrator's manner and tone had the stamp of truth, and his
story made a great impression on all around. 'And do you know
where your brother is at the present time?' asked the magistrate.
'I do not. I have never seen him since I closed this door.'
'I can testify to that, for we've been between ye ever since,'
said the constable.
'Where does he think to fly to?--what is his occupation?'
'He's a watch-and-clock-maker, sir.'
''A said 'a was a wheelwright--a wicked rogue,' said the
'The wheels of clocks and watches he meant, no doubt,' said
Shepherd Fennel. 'I thought his hands were palish for's trade.'
'Well, it appears to me that nothing can be gained by
retaining this poor man in custody,' said the magistrate; 'your
business lies with the other, unquestionably.'
And so the little man was released off-hand; but he looked
nothing the less sad on that account, it being beyond the power
of magistrate or constable to raze out the written troubles in
his brain, for they concerned another whom he regarded with more
solicitude than himself. When this was done, and the man had gone
his way, the night was found to be so far advanced that it was
deemed useless to renew the search before the next morning.
Next day, accordingly, the quest for the clever sheep-stealer
became general and keen, to all appearance at least. But the
intended punishment was cruelly disproportioned to the
transgression, and the sympathy of a great many country-folk in
that district was strongly on the side of the fugitive. Moreover,
his marvellous coolness and daring in hob-and-nobbing with the
hangman, under the unprecedented circumstances of the shepherd's
party, won their admiration. So that it may be questioned if all
those who ostensibly made themselves so busy in exploring woods
and fields and lanes were quite so thorough when it came to the
private examination of their own lofts and outhouses. Stories
were afloat of a mysterious figure being occasionally seen in
some old overgrown trackway or other, remote from turnpike roads;
but when a search was instituted in any of these suspected
quarters nobody was found. Thus the days and weeks passed without
In brief; the bass-voiced man of the chimney-corner was never
recaptured. Some said that he went across the sea, others that he
did not, but buried himself in the depths of a populous city. At
any rate, the gentleman in cinder-gray never did his morning's
work at Casterbridge, nor met anywhere at all, for business
purposes, the genial comrade with whom he had passed an hour of
relaxation in the lonely house on the coomb.
The grass has long been green on the graves of Shepherd Fennel
and his frugal wife; the guests who made up the christening party
have mainly followed their entertainers to the tomb; the baby in
whose honour they all had met is a matron in the sere and yellow
leaf. But the arrival of the three strangers at the shepherd's
that night, and the details connected therewith, is a story as
well known as ever in the country about Higher Crowstairs.
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