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CHAPTER I



DESCRIPTION OF FARMER OAK -- AN INCIDENT


When Farmer Oak smiled, the corners of his mouth
spread till they were within an unimportant distance of
his ears, his eyes were reduced to chinks, and diverging
wrinkles appeared round them, extending upon his
countenance like the rays in a rudimentary sketch of
the rising sun.
His Christian name was Gabriel, and on working
days he was a young man of sound judgment, easy
motions, proper dress, and general good character. On
Sundays he was a man of misty views, rather given to
postponing, and hampered by his best clothes and
umbrella: upon the whole, one who felt himself to
occupy morally that vast middle space of Laodicean
neutrality which lay between the Communion people
of the parish and the drunken section, -- that is, he went
to church, but yawned privately by the time the con-
gegation reached the Nicene creed,- and thought of
what there would be for dinner when he meant to be
listening to the sermon. Or, to state his character as
it stood in the scale of public opinion, when his friends
and critics were in tantrums, he was considered rather a
bad man; when they were pleased, he was rather a good
man; when they were neither, he was a man whose
moral colour was a kind of pepper-and-salt mixture.
Since he lived six times as many working-days as
Sundays, Oak's appearance in his old clothes was most
peculiarly his own -- the mental picture formed by his
neighbours in imagining him being always dressed in
that way. He wore a low-crowned felt hat, spread out
at the base by tight jamming upon the head for security
in high winds, and a coat like Dr. Johnson's; his lower
extremities being encased in ordinary leather leggings
and boots emphatically large, affording to each foot a
roomy apartment so constructed that any wearer might
stand in a river all day long and know nothing of
damp -- their maker being a conscientious man who
endeavoured to compensate for any weakness in his cut
by unstinted dimension and solidity.
Mr. Oak carried about him, by way of watch,-
what may be called a small silver clock; in other
words, it was a watch as to shape and intention, and
a small clock as to size. This instrument being several
years older than Oak's grandfather, had the peculiarity
of going either too fast or not at all. The smaller
of its hands, too, occasionally slipped round on the
pivot, and thus, though the minutes were told with
precision, nobody could be quite certain of the hour
they belonged to. The stopping peculiarity of his
watch Oak remedied by thumps and shakes, and he
escaped any evil consequences from the other two
defects by constant comparisons with and observations
of the sun and stars, and by pressing his face close
to the glass of his neighbours' windows, till he could
discern the hour marked by the green-faced timekeepers
within. It may be mentioned that Oak's fob being
difficult of access, by reason of its somewhat high
situation in the waistband of his trousers (which also
lay at a remote height under his waistcoat), the watch
was as a necessity pulled out by throwing the body to
one side, compressing the mouth and face to a mere
mass of ruddy flesh on account of the exertion, and
drawing up the watch by its chain, like a bucket from a
well.
But some thoughtfull persons, who had seen him
walking across one of his fields on a certain December
morning -- sunny and exceedingly mild -- might have
regarded Gabriel Oak in other aspects than these. In
his face one might notice that many of the hues and
curves of youth had tarried on to manhood: there even
remained in his remoter crannies some relics of the boy.
His height and breadth would have been sufficient to
make his presence imposing, had they been exhibited
with due consideration. But there is a way some men
have, rural and urban alike, for which the mind is more
responsible than flesh and sinew: it is a way of curtail-
ing their dimensions by their manner of showing them.
And from a quiet modesty that would have become a
vestal which seemed continually to impress upon him
that he had no great claim on the world's room, Oak
walked unassumingly and with a faintly perceptible
bend, yet distinct from a bowing of the shoulders.
This may be said to be a defect in an individual if he
depends for his valuation more upon his appearance
than upon his capacity to wear well, which Oak did not.
He had just reached the time of life at which "young"
is ceasing to be the prefix of "man" in speaking of one.
He was at the brightest period of masculine growth,
for his intellect and his emotions were clearly separated:
he had passed the time during which the influence of
youth indiscriminately mingles them in the character
of impulse, and he had not yet arrived at the stage
wherein they become united again, in the character of
prejudice, by the influence of a wife and family. In
short, he was twenty-eight, and a bachelor.
The field he was in this morning sloped to a
ridge called Norcombe Hill. Through a spur of this
hill ran the highway between Emminster and Chalk-
Newton. Casually glancing over the hedge, Oak saw
coming down the incline before him an ornamental
spring waggon, painted yellow and gaily marked,
drawn by two horses, a waggoner walking alongside
bearing a whip perpendicularly. The waggon was
laden with household goods and window plants, and
on the apex of the whole sat a woman, "young" and
attractive. Gabriel had not beheld the sight for more
than half a minute, when the vehicle was brought to a
standstill just beneath his eyes.
"The tailboard of the waggon is gone, Miss." said the
waggoner.
"Then I heard it fall." said the girl, in a soft, though
not particularly low voice. "I heard a noise I could
not account for when we were coming up the hill."
"I'll run back."
"Do." she answered.
The sensible horses stood -- perfectly still, and the
waggoner's steps sank fainter and fainter in the distance.
The girl on the summit of the load sat motionless,
surrounded by tables and chairs with their legs upwards,
backed by an oak settle, and ornamented in front by
pots of geraniums, myrtles, and cactuses, together with
a caged canary -- all probably from the windows of the
house just vacated. There was also a cat in a willow
basket, from the partly-opened lid of which she gazed
with half-closed eyes, and affectionately-surveyed the
small birds around.
The handsome girl waited for some time idly in her
place, and the only sound heard in the stillness was the
hopping of the canary up-and down the perches of its
prison. Then she looked attentively downwards. It
was not at the bird, nor at the cat; it was at an oblong
package tied in paper, and lying between them. She
turned her head to learn if the waggoner were coming.
He was not yet in sight; and her-eyes crept back to
the package, her thoughts seeming to run upon what
was inside it. At length she drew the article into her
lap, and untied the paper covering; a small swing
looking-glass was disclosed, in which she proceeded to
survey herself attentively. She parted her lips and
smiled.
It was a fine morning, and the sun lighted up to a
scarlet glow the crimson jacket she wore, and painted
a soft lustre upon her bright face and dark hair. The
myrtles, geraniums, and cactuses packed around her
were fresh and green, and at such a leafless season they
invested the whole concern of horses, waggon, furniture,
and girl with a peculiar vernal charm. What possessed
her to indulge in such a performance in the sight of the
sparrows, blackbirds, and unperceived farmer who were
alone its spectators, -- whether the smile began as a
factitious one, to test her capacity in that art, -- nobody
knows; it ended certainly in a real smile. She blushed
at herself, and seeing her reflection blush, blushed the
more.
The change from the customary spot and necessary
occasion of such an act -- from the dressing hour in a
bedroom to a time of travelling out of doors -- lent to
the idle deed a novelty it did not intrinsically possess.
The picture was a delicate one. Woman's prescriptive
infirmity had stalked into the sunlight, which had
clothed it in the freshness of an originality. A
cynical inference was irresistible by Gabriel Oak as he
regarded the scene, generous though he fain would have
been. There was no necessity whatever for her looking
in the glass. She did not adjust her hat, or pat her
hair, or press a dimple into shape, or do one thing to
signify that any such intention had been her motive in
taking up the glass. She simply observed herself as a
fair product of Nature in the feminine kind, her thoughts
seeming to glide into far-off though likely dramas in
which men would play a part -- vistas of probable
triumphs -- the smiles being of a phase suggesting that
hearts were imagined as lost and won. Still, this was
but conjecture, and the whole series of actions was so
idly put forth as to make it rash to assert that intention
had any part in them at all.
The waggoner's steps were heard returning. She
put the glass in the paper, and the whole again into its
place.
When the waggon had passed on, Gabriel withdrew
from his point of espial, and descending into the road,
followed the vehicle to the turnpike-gate some way
beyond the bottom of the hill, where the object of his
contemplation now halted for the payment of toll. About
twenty steps still remained between him and the gate,
when he heard a dispute. lt was a difference con-
cerning twopence between the persons with the waggon
and the man at the toll-bar.
"Mis'ess's niece is upon the top of the things, and
she says that's enough that I've offered ye, you great
miser, and she won't pay any more." These were the
waggoner's words.
"Very well; then mis'ess's niece can't pass." said the
turnpike-keeper, closing the gate.
Oak looked from one to the other of the disputants,
and fell into a reverie. There was something in the
tone of twopence remarkably insignificant. Threepence
had a definite value as money -- it was an appreciable
infringement on a day's wages, and, as such, a higgling
matter; but twopence -- " Here." he said, stepping
forward and handing twopence to the gatekeeper; "let
the young woman pass." He looked up at her then;
she heard his words, and looked down.
Gabriel's features adhered throughout their form so
exactly to the middle line between the beauty of St.
John and the ugliness of Judas Iscariot, as represented
in a window of the church he attended, that not a single
lineament could be selected and called worthy either of
distinction or notoriety. The redjacketed and dark-
haired maiden seemed to think so too, for she carelessly
glanced over him, and told her man to drive on. She
might have looked her thanks to Gabriel on a minute
scale, but she did not speak them; more probably she
felt none, for in gaining her a passage he had lost her
her point, and we know how women take a favour of
that kind.
The gatekeeper surveyed the retreating vehicle.
"That's a handsome maid" he said to Oak
"But she has her faults." said Gabriel.
"True, farmer."
"And the greatest of them is -- well, what it is
always."
"Beating people down? ay, 'tis so."
"O no."
"What, then?"
Gabriel, perhaps a little piqued by the comely
traveller's indifference, glanced back to where he had
witnessed her performance over the hedge, and said,
"Vanity."





Far From The Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
Category:
English Literature
 
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