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IT was nearly midnight on the eve of St. Thomas's, the
shortest day in the year. A desolating wind wandered
from the north over the hill whereon Oak had watched
the yellow waggon and its occupant in the sunshine of
a few days earlier.
Norcombe Hill -- not far from lonely Toller-Down
-- was one of the spots which suggest to a passer-by
that he is in the presence of a shape approaching the
indestructible as nearly as any to be found on earth.
It was a featureless convexity of chalk and soil -- an
ordinary specimen of those smoothly-outlined protuber-
ances of the globe which may remain undisturbed on
some great day of confusion, when far grander heights
and dizzy granite precipices topple down.
The hill was covered on its northern side by an
ancient and decaying plantation of beeches, whose
upper verge formed a line over the crest, fringing its
arched curve against the sky, like a mane. To-night
these trees sheltered the southern slope from the keenest
blasts, which smote the wood and floundered through
it with a sound as of grumbling, or gushed over its
crowning boughs in a weakened moan. The dry leaves
in the ditch simmered and boiled in the same breezes,
a tongue of air occasionally ferreting out a few, and
sending them spinning across the grass. A group or
two of the latest in date amongst the dead multitude
had remained till this very mid-winter time on the twigs
which bore them and in falling rattled against the trunks
with smart taps:
Between this half-wooded, half naked hill, and the
vague still horizon that its summit indistinctly com-
manded, was a mysterious sheet of fathomless shade
-- the sounds from which suggested that what it con-
cealed bore some reduced resemblance to features here.
The thin grasses, more or less coating the hill, were
touched by the wind in breezes of differing powers, and
almost of differing natures -- one rubbing the blades
heavily, another raking them piercingly, another brushing
them like a soft broom. The instinctive act of human-
kind was to stand and listen, and learn how the trees
to each other in the regular antiphonies of a cathedral
choir; how hedges and other shapes to leeward them
caught the note, lowering it to the tenderest sob; and
how the hurrying gust then plunged into the south, to
be heard no more.
The sky was clear -- remarkably clear -- and the
twinkling of all the stars seemed to be but throbs of
one body, timed by a common pulse. The North Star
was directly in the wind's eye, and since evening the
Bear had swung round it outwardly to the east, till he
was now at a right angle with the meridian. A
difference of colour in the stars -- oftener read of than
seen in England-was really perceptible here. The
sovereign brilliancy of Sirius pierced the eye with a steely
glitter, the star called Capella was yellow, Aldebaran and
Betelgueux shone with a fiery red.
To persons standing alone on a hill during a clear
midnight such as this, the roll of the world eastward is
almost a palpable movement. The sensation may be
caused by the panoramic glide of the stars past earthly
objects, which is perceptible in a few minutes of still-
ness, or by the better outlook upon space that a hill
affords, or by the wind, or by the solitude; but whatever
be its origin, the impression of riding along is vivid and
abiding. The poetry of motion is a phrase much in
use, and to enjoy the epic form of that gratification it
is necessary to stand on a hill at a small hour of the
night, and, having first expanded with a sense of differ-
ence from the mass of civilised mankind, who are
dreamwrapt and disregardful of all such proceedings at
this time, long and quietly watch your stately progress
through the stars. After such a nocturnal reconnoitre
it is hard to get back to earth, and to believe that the
consciousness of such majestic speeding is derived from
a tiny human frame.
Suddenly an unexpected series of sounds began to
be heard in this place up against the sky. They had a
clearness which was to be found nowhere in the wind,
and a sequence which was to be found nowhere in
nature. They were the notes of Farmer Oak's flute.
The tune was not floating unhindered into the open
air: it seemed muffled in some way, and was altogether
too curtailed in power to spread high or wide. It came
from the direction of a small dark object under the
plantation hedge -- a shepherd's hut -- now presenting
an outline to which an uninitiated person might have
been puzzled to attach either meaning or use.
The image as a whole was that of a small Noah's
Ark on a small Ararat, allowing the traditionary outlines
and general form of the Ark which are followed by toy-
makers -- and by these means are established in men's
imaginations among their firmest, because earliest im-
pressions -- to pass as an approximate pattern. The
hut stood on little wheels, which raised its floor about a
foot from the ground. Such shepherds' huts are dragged
into the fields when the lambing season comes on, to
shelter the shepherd in his- enforced nightly attendance.
It was only latterly that people had begun to call
Gabriel "Farmer" Oak. During the twelvemonth pre-
ceding this time he had been enabled by sustained
efforts of industry and chronic good spirits to lease the
small sheep farm of which Norcombe Hill was a portion,
and stock it with two hundred sheep. Previously he
had been a bailiff for a short time, and earlier still a
shepherd only, having from his childhood assisted his
father in tending the flocks of large proprietors, till old
Gabriel sank to rest.
This venture, unaided and alone, into the paths of
farming as master and not as man, with an advance of
sheep not yet paid for, was a critical juncture with
Gabriel Oak, and he recognised his position clearly.
The first movement in his new progress was the lambing
of his ewes, and sheep having been his speciality from
his "youth, he wisely refrained from deputing -- the task
of tending them at this season to a hireling or a novice.
The wind continued to beat-about the corners of the
hut, but the flute-playing ceased. A rectangular space
of light appeared in the side of the hut, and in the
opening the outline of Farmer Oak's figure. He carried
a lantern in his hand, and closing the door behind him,
came forward and busied himself about this nook of the
field for nearly twenty minutes, the lantern light appear-
ing and disappearing here and there, and brightening
him or darkening him as he stood before or behind it.
Oak's motions, though they had a quiet-energy, were
slow, and their deliberateness accorded well with his
occupation. Fitness being the basis of beauty, nobody
could-have denied that his steady swings and turns"
in and- about the flock had elements of grace, Yet,
although if occasion demanded he could do or think a
thing with as mercurial a dash as can the men of towns
who are more to the manner born, his special power,
morally, physically, and mentally, was static, owing
little or nothing to momentum as a rule.
A close examination of the ground hereabout, even
by the wan starlight only, revealed how a portion of
what would have been casually called a wild slope had
been appropriated by Farmer Oak for his great purpose
this winter. Detached hurdles thatched with straw
were stuck into the ground at various scattered points,
amid and under which the whitish forms of his meek
ewes moved and rustled. The ring of the sheep-bell,
which had been silent during his absence, recommenced,
in tones that had more mellowness than clearness, owing
to an increasing growth of surrounding wool. This
continued till Oak withdrew again from the flock. He
-- returned to the hut, bringing in his arms a new-born
lamb, consisting of four legs large enough for a full-
grown sheep, united by a seemingly inconsiderable mem-
brane about half the substance of the legs collectively,
which constituted the animal's entire body just at present.
The little speck of life he placed on a wisp of hay
before the small stove, where a can of milk was simmer-
ing. Oak extinguished the lantern by blowing into it
and then pinching the snuff, the cot being lighted
by a candle suspended by a twisted wire. A rather
hard couch, formed of a few corn sacks thrown carelessly
down, covered half the floor of this little habitation, and
here the young man stretched himself along, loosened
his woollen cravat, and closed his eyes. In about the
time a person unaccustomed to bodily labour would have
decided upon which side to lie, Farmer Oak was asleep.
The inside of the hut, as it now presented itself, was
cosy and alluring, and the scarlet handful of fire in
addition to the candle, reflecting its own genial colour
upon whatever it could reach, flung associations of
enjoyment even over utensils and tools. In the corner
stood the sheep-crook, and along a shelf at one side
were ranged bottles and canisters of the simple prepara-
tions pertaining to bovine surgery and physic; spirits of
wine, turpentine, tar, magnesia, ginger, and castor-oil
being the chief. On a triangular shelf across the corner
stood bread, bacon, cheese, and a cup for ale or cider,
which was supplied from a flagon beneath. Beside the
provisions lay the flute whose notes had lately been
called forth by the lonely watcher to beguile a tedious
hour. The house was ventilated by two round holes,
like the lights of a ship's cabin, with wood slides-
The lamb, revived by the warmth began to bleat"
instant meaning, as expected sounds will. Passing
from the profoundest sleep to the most alert wakefulness
with the same ease that had accompanied the reverse
operation, he looked at his watch, found that the hour-
hand had shifted again, put on his hat, took the lamb
in his arms, and carried it into the darkness. After
placing the little creature with its mother, he stood and
carefully examined the sky, to ascertain the time of
night from the altitudes of the stars.
The Dog-star and Aldebaran, pointing to the restless
Pleiades, were half-way up the Southern sky, and between
them hung Orion, which gorgeous constellation never
burnt more vividly than now, as it soared forth above
the rim of the landscape. Castor and Pollux will
the north-west; far away through the plantation Vega
and Cassiopeia's chair stood daintily poised on the
uppermost boughs. "One o'clock." said Gabriel.
Being a man not without a frequent consciousness
that there was some charm in this life he led, he stood
still after looking at the sky as a useful instrument, and
regarded it in an appreciative spirit, as a work of art
superlatively beautiful. For a moment he seemed
impressed with the speaking loneliness of the scene, or
rather with the complete abstraction from all its compass
of the sights and sounds of man. Human shapes,interferences,
troubles, and joys were all as if they were not, and there
seemed to be on the shaded hemisphere of the globe no sentient
being save himself; he could fancy them all gone round to the sunny side.
Occupied this, with eyes stretched afar, Oak gradually per-
ceived that what he had previously taken to be a star low
down behind the outskirts of the plantation was in reality no
such thing. It was an artificial light, almost close at hand.
To find themselves utterly alone at night where company
is desirable and expected makes some people fearful; but a
case more trying by far to the nerves is to discover some
mysterious companionship when intuition, sensation, memory,
analogy, testimony, probability, induction -- every kind of
evidence in the logician's list -- have united to persuade con-
sciousness that it is quite in isolation.
Farmer Oak went towards the plantation and pushed
through its lower boughs to the windy side. A dim mass under
the slope reminded him that a shed occupied a place here,
the site being a cutting into the slope of the hill, so that at
its back part the roof was almost level with the ground. In
front it was formed of board nailed to posts and covered with
tar as a preservative. Through crevices in the roof and side
spread streaks and spots of light, a combination of which made
the radiance that had attracted him. Oak stepped up behind,
where,leaning down upon the roof and putting his eye close
to a hole, he could see into the interior clearly.
The place contained two women and two cows. By the side
of the latter a steaming bran-mash stood in a bucket. One
of the women was past middle age. Her companion was ap-
parently young and graceful; he could form no decided opinion
upon her looks, her position being almost beneath his eye, so
that he saw her in a bird's-eye view, as Milton's Satan first saw
Paradise. She wore no bonnet or het, but had enveloped her-
self in a large cloak, which was carelessly flung over her head
as a covering.
"There, now we'll go home," said the elder of the two, resting
her knuckles upon her hips, and looking at their goings-on as
a whole. "I do hope Daisy will fetch round again now. I have
never been more frightened in my life, but I don't mind break-
ing my rest if she recovers."
The young woman, whose eyelids were apparently inclined
to fall together on the smallest provocation of silence,yawned
in sympathy.
"I wish we were rich enough to pay a man to do these
things," she said.
"As we are not, we must do them ourselves," said the other;
"for you must help me if you stay."
"Well, my hat is gone, however," continued the younger. "It
went over the hedge, I think. The idea of such a slight wind
catching it."
The cow standing erect was of the Devon breed, and was
encased in a tight warm hide of rich Indian red, as absolutely
uniform from eyes to tail as if the animal had been dipped in
a dye of that colour, her long back being mathematically level.
The other was spotted,grey and white. Beside her Oak now
noticed a little calf about a day old, looking idiotically at
the two women, which showed that it had not long been
accustomed to the phenomenon of eyesight, and often turn-
ing to the lantern, which it apparently mistook for the moon.
inherited instinct having as yet had little time for correction
by experience. Between the sheep and the cows Lucina had
been busy on Norcombe hill lately.
"I think we had better send for some oatmeal," said the
"Yes, aunt; and I'll ride over for it as soon as it is light."
"But there's no side-saddle."
"I can ride on the other: trust me."
Oak, upon hearing these remarks, became more
curious to observe her features, but this prospect being
denied him by the hooding effect of the cloak, and by his
aerial position, he felt himself drawing upon his fancy
for their details. In making even horizontal and clear
inspections we colour and mould according to the warts
within us whatever our eyes bring in. Had Gabriel
been able from the first to get a distinct view of her -
countenance, his estimate of it as very handsome or
slightly so would have been as his soul required a
divinity at the moment or was ready supplied with one.
Having for some time known the want of a satisfactory
form to fill an increasing void within him, his position
moreover affording the widest scope for his fancy, he
painted her a beauty.
By one of those whimsical coincidences in which
Nature, like a busy mother, seems to spare a moment
from her unremitting labours to turn and make her
children smile, the girl now dropped the cloak, and
forth tumbled ropes of black hair over a red jacket.
Oak knew her instantly as the heroine of the yellow
waggon, myrtles, and looking-glass: prosily, as the
woman who owed him twopence.
They placed the calf beside its mother again, took
up the lantern, and went out, the light sinking down
the hill till it was no more than a nebula. Gabriel
Oak returned to his flock.

Far From The Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
English Literature
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