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CHAPTER XXII



THE GREAT BARN AND THE SHEEP-SHEARERS


MEN thin away to insignificance and oblivion quite as
often by not making the most of good spirits when they
have them as by lacking good spirits when they are
indispensable. Gabriel lately, for the first time since
his prostration by misfortune, had been independent in
thought and vigorous in action to a marked extent --
conditions which, powerless without an opportunity as
an opportunity without them is barren, would have
given him a sure lift upwards when the favourable-con-
junction should have occurred. But this incurable
loitering beside Bathsheba Everdene stole his time
ruinously. The spring tides were going by without
floating him off, and the neap might soon come which
could not.
It was the first day of June, and the sheep-shearing
season culminated, the landscape, even to the leanest
pasture, being all health and colour. Every green was
young, every pore was open, and every stalk was swollen
with racing currents of juice. God was palpably present
in the country, and the devil had gone with the world
to town. Flossy catkins of the later kinds, fern-sprouts
like bishops' croziers, the square-headed moschatel, the
odd cuckoo-pint, -- like an apoplectic saint in a niche
of malachite, -- snow-white ladies'-smocks, the toothwort,
approximating to human flesh, the enchanter's night-
shade, and the black-petaled doleful-bells, were among
the quainter objects of the vegetable world in and about
Weatherbury at this teeming time; and of the animal,
the metamorphosed figures of Mr. Jan Coggan, the
master-shearer; the second and third shearers, who
travelled in the exercise of their calling, and do not re-
quire definition by name; Henery Fray the fourth
shearer, Susan Tall's husband the fifth, Joseph Poorgrass
the sixth, young Cain Ball as assistant-shearer, and
Gabriel Oak as general supervisor. None of these were
clothed to any extent worth mentioning, each appearing
to have hit in the matter of raiment the decent mean
between a high and low caste Hindoo. An angularity
of lineament, and a fixity of facial machinery in general,
proclaimed that serious work was the order of the day.
They sheared in the great barn, called for the nonce
the Shearing-barn, which on ground-plan resembled a
church with transepts. It not only emulated the form
of the neighbouring church of the parish, but vied with
it in antiquity. Whether the barn had ever formed one
of a group of conventual buildings nobody seemed to be
aware; no trace of such surroundings remained. The
vast porches at the sides, lofty enough to admit a waggon
laden to its highest with corn in the sheaf, were spanned
by heavy-pointed arches of stone, broadly and boldly cut,
whose very simplicity was the origin of a grandeur not
apparent in erections where more ornament has been
attempted. The dusky, filmed, chestnut roof, braced
and tied in by huge collars, curves, and diagonals, was
far nobler in design, because more wealthy in material,
than nine-tenths of those in our modern churches.
Along each side wall was a range of striding buttresses,
throwing deep shadows on the spaces between them,
which were perforated by lancet openings, combining
in their proportions the precise requirements both of
beauty and ventilation.
One could say about this barn, what could hardly
be said of either the church or the castle, akin to it in
age and style, that the purpose which had dictated its
original erection was the same with that to which it
was still applied. Unlike and superior to either of
those two typical remnants of mediaevalism, the old
barn embodied practices which had suffered no mutila-
tion at the hands of time. Here at least the spirit of
the ancient builders was at one with the spirit of the
modern beholder. Standing before this abraded pile,
the eye regarded its present usage, the mind-dwelt upon
its past history, with a satisfied sense of functional
continuity throughout -- a feeling almost of gratitude,
and quite of pride, at the permanence of the idea
which had heaped it up. The fact that four centuries
had neither proved it to be founded on a mistake,
inspired any hatred of its purpose, nor given rise to
any reaction that had battered it down, invested this
simple grey effort of old minds with a repose, if not a
grandeur, which a too curious reflection was apt to
disturb in its ecclesiastical and military compeers. For
once medievalism and modernism had a common stand-
point. The lanccolate windows, the time-eaten arch-
stones and chamfers, the orientation of the axis, the
misty chestnut work of the rafters, referred to no exploded
fortifying art or worn-out religious creed. The defence
and salvation of the body by daily bread is still a study,
a religion, and a desire.
To-day the large side doors were thrown open
towards the sun to admit a bountiful light to the
immediate spot of the shearers' operations, which was
the wood threshing-floor in the centre, formed of thick
oak, black with age and polished by the beating of flails
for many generations, till it had grown as slippery and
as rich in hue as the state-room floors of an Elizabethan
mansion. Here the shearers knelt, the sun slanting in
upon their bleached shirts, tanned arms, and the polished
shears they flourished, causing these to bristle with a
thousand rays strong enough to blind a weak-eyed man.
Beneath them a captive sheep lay panting, quickening
its pants as misgiving merged in terror, till it quivered
like the hot landscape outside.
This picture of to-day in its frame of four hundred
years ago did not produce that marked contrast between
ancient and modern which is implied by the contrast
of date. In comparison with cities, Weatherbury was
immutable. The citizen's Then is the rustic's Now.
In London, twenty or thirty-years ago are old times;
in Paris ten years, or five; in Weatherbury three or
four score years were included in the mere present,
and nothing less than a century set a mark on its
face or tone. Five decades hardly modified the cut of
a gaiter, the embroidery of a smock-frock, by the breadth
of a hair. Ten generations failed to alter the turn of
a single phrase. In these Wessex nooks the busy out-
sider's ancient times are only old; his old times are still
new; his present is futurity.
So the barn was natural to the shearers, and the
shearers were in harmony with the barn.
The spacious ends of the building, answering ecclesi-
astically to nave and chancel extremities, were fenced
off with hurdles, the sheep being all collected in a crowd
within these two enclosures; and in one angle a catching-
pen was formed, in which three or four sheep were
continuously kept ready for the shearers to seize without
loss of time. In the background, mellowed by tawny
shade, were the three women, Maryann Money, and
Temperance and Soberness Miller, gathering up the
fleeces and twisting ropes of wool with a wimble for
tying them round. They were indifferently well assisted
by the old maltster, who, when the malting season from
October to April had passed, made himself useful upon
any of the bordering farmsteads.
"Behind all was Bathsheba, carefully watching the
men to see that there was no cutting or wounding
through carelessness, and that the animals were shorn
close. Gabriel, who flitted and hovered under her
bright eyes like a moth, did not shear continuously,
half his time being spent in attending to the others
and selecting the sheep for them. At the present
moment he was engaged in handing round a mug of
mild liquor, supplied from a barrel in the corner,
and cut pieces of bread and cheese.
Bathsheba, after throwing a glance here, a caution
there, and lecturing one of the younger operators who
had allowed his last finished sheep to go off among
the flock without re-stamping it with her initials, came
again to Gabriel, as he put down the luncheon to drag
a frightened ewe to his shear-station, flinging it over
upon its back with a dexterous twist of the arm
He lopped off the tresses about its head, and opened
up the neck and collar, his mistress quietly looking
on:
"She blushes at the insult." murmured Bathsheba,
watching the pink flush which arose and overspread
the neck and shoulders of the ewe where they were
left bare by the clicking shears -- a flush which was
enviable, for its delicacy, by many queens of coteries,
and would have been creditable, for its promptness, to
any woman in the world.
Poor Gabriel's soul was fed with a luxury of content
by having her over him, her eyes critically regarding
his skilful shears, which apparently were going to gather
up a piece of the flesh at every close, and yet never did
so. Like Guildenstern, Oak was happy in that he was
not over happy. He had no wish to converse with her:
that his bright lady and himself formed one group,
exclusively their own, and containing no others in the
world, was enough.
So the chatter was all on her side. There is a
loquacity that tells nothing, which was Bathsheba's;
and there is a silence which says much: that was
Gabriel's. Full of this dim and temperate bliss, he
went on to fling the ewe over upon her other side,
covering her head with his knee, gradually running
the shears line after line round her dewlap; thence
about her flank and back, and finishing over the tail.
"Well done, and done quickly!" said Bathsheba,
looking at her watch as the last snip resounded.
"How long, miss?" said Gabriel, wiping his brow.
"Three-and-twenty minutes and a half since you took
the first lock from its forehead. It is the first time that
I have ever seen one done in less than half an hour."
The clean, sleek creature arose from its fleece -- how
perfectly like Aphrodite rising from the foam should
have been seen to be realized -- looking startled and
shy at the loss of its garment, which lay on the floor
in one soft cloud, united throughout, the portion visible
being the inner surface only, which, never before exposed,
was white as snow, and without flaw or blemish of the
minutest kind.
"Cain Ball!"
"Yes, Mister Oak; here I be!"
Cainy now runs forward with the tar-pot. "B. E." is
newly stamped upon the shorn skin, and away the simple
dam leaps, panting, over the board into the shirtless
flock outside. Then up comes Maryann; throws the
loose locks into the middle of the fleece, rolls it up,
and carries it into the background as three-and-a-half
pounds of unadulterated warmth for the winter enjoy-
ment of persons unknown and far away, who will,
however, never experience the superlative comfort
derivable from the wool as it here exists, new and pure
-- before the unctuousness of its nature whilst in a
living state has dried, stiffened, and been washed out
-- rendering it just now as superior to anything woollen
as cream is superior to milk-and-water.
But heartless circumstance could not leave entire
Gabriel's happiness of this morning. The rams, old
ewes, and two-shear ewes had duly undergone their
stripping, and the men were proceeding with the shear-
lings and hogs, when Oak's belief that she was going to
stand pleasantly by and time him through another
performance was painfully interrupted by Farmer Bold-
wood's appearance in the extremest corner of the barn.
Nobody seemed to have perceived his entry, but there
he certainly was. Boldwood always carried with him a
social atmosphere of his own, which everybody felt who
came near him; and the talk, which Bathsheba's
presence had somewhat suppressed, was now totally
suspended.
He crossed over towards Bathsheba, who turned to
greet him with a carriage of perfect ease. He spoke to
her in low tones, and she instinctively modulated her
own to the same pitch, and her voice ultimately even
caught the inflection of his. She was far from having
a wish to appear mysteriously connected with him; but
woman at the impressionable age gravitates to the larger
body not only in her choice of words, which is apparent
every day, but even in her shades of tone and humour,
when the influence is great.
What they conversed about was not audible to
Gabriel, who was too independent to get near, though
too concerned to disregard. The issue of their dialogue
was the taking of her hand by the courteous farmer to
help her over the spreading-board into the bright June
sunlight outside. Standing beside the sheep already
shorn, they went on talking again. Concerning the
flock? Apparently not. Gabriel theorized, not without
truth, that in quiet discussion of any matter within reach
of the speakers' eyes, these are usually fixed upon it.
Bathsheba demurely regarded a contemptible straw lying
upon the ground, in a way which suggested less ovine
criticism than womanly embarrassment. She became
more or less red in the cheek, the blood wavering in
uncertain flux and reflux over the sensitive space between
ebb and flood. Gabriel sheared on, constrained and
sad.
She left Boldwood's side, and he walked up and
down alone for nearly a quarter of an hour. Then she
reappeared in her new riding-habit of myrtle-green, which
fitted her to the waist as a rind fits its fruit; and young
Bob Coggan led -on -her mare, Boldwood fetching his
own horse from the tree under which it had been tied.
Oak's eyes could not forsake them; and in en-
deavouring to continue his shearing at the same time
that he watched Boldwood's manner, he snipped the
sheep in the groin. The animal plunged; Bathsheba
instantly gazed towards it, and saw the blood.
"O, Gabriel!" she exclaimed, with severe remon-
strance you who are so strict with the other men -- see
what you are doing yourself!"
To an outsider there was not much to complain of
in this remark; but to Oak, who "knew Bathsheba to be
well aware that she herself was the cause of the poor
ewe's wound, because she had wounded the ewe's shearer
in a -- still more vital part, it had a sting which the abiding
sense of his inferiority to both herself and Boldwood was
not calculated to heal. But a manly resolve to recognize
boldly that he had no longer a lover's interest in her,
helped him occasionally to conceal a feeling.
"Bottle!" he shouted, in an unmoved voice of routine.
Cainy Ball ran up, the wound was anointed, and the
shearing continued.
Boldwood gently tossed Bathsheba into the saddle,
and before they turned away she again spoke out to Oak
with the same dominative and tantalizing graciousness.
"I am going now to see Mr. Boldwood's Leicesters.
Take my place in the barn, Gabriel, and keep the men
carefully to their work."
The horses' heads were put about, and they trotted
away.
Boldwood's deep attachment was a matter of great
interest among all around him; but, after having been
pointed out for so many years as the perfect exemplar
of thriving bachelorship, his lapse was an anticlimax
somewhat resembling that of St. John Long's death by
consumption in the midst of his proofs that it was not
a fatal disease.
"That means matrimony." said Temperance Miller,
following them out of sight with her eyes.
"I reckon that's the size o't." said Coggan, working
along without looking up.
"Well, better wed over the mixen than over the moor,"
said Laban Tall, turning his sheep.
Henery Fray spoke, exhibiting miserable eyes at the
same time: "I don't see why a maid should take a
husband when she's bold enough to fight her own
battles, and don't want a home; for 'tis keeping another
woman out. But let it be, for 'tis a pity he and she
should trouble two houses."
As usual with decided characters, Bathsheba invari-
ably provoked the criticism of individuals like Henery
Fray. Her emblazoned fault was to be too pronounced
in her objections, and not sufficiently overt in her
likings. We learn that it is not the rays which bodies
absorb, but those which they reject, that give them the
colours they are known by; and win the same way people
are specialized by their dislikes and antagonisms, whilst
their goodwill is looked upon as no attribute at all.
Henery continued in a more complaisant mood: "I
once hinted my mind to her on a few things, as nearly
as a battered frame dared to do so to such a froward
piece. You all know, neighbours, what a man I be,
and how I come down with my powerful words when
my pride is boiling wi' scarn?"
"We do, we do, Henery."
"So I said, " Mistress Everdene, there's places empty,
and there's gifted men willing; but the spite -- no. not
the spite -- I didn't say spite -- "but the villainy of the
contrarikind." I said (meaning womankind), " keeps 'em
out." That wasn't too strong for her, say?"
"Passably well put."
"Yes; and I would have said it, had death and
salvation overtook me for it. Such is my spirit when I
have a mind."
"A true man, and proud as a lucifer."
"You see the artfulness? Why, 'twas about being
baily really; but I didn't put it so plain that she could
understand my meaning, so I could lay it on all the
stronger. That was my depth! ... However, let her
marry an she will. Perhaps 'tis high time. I believe
Farmer Boldwood kissed her behind the spear-bed at the
sheep-washing t'other day -- that I do."
"What a lie!" said Gabriel.
"Ah, neighbour Oak -- how'st know?" said, Henery,
mildly.
"Because she told me all that passed." said Oak, with
a pharisaical sense that he was not as other shearers in
this matter.
"Ye have a right to believe it." said Henery, with
dudgeon; "a very true right. But I mid see a little
distance into things! To be long-headed enough for a
baily's place is a poor mere trifle -- yet a trifle more than
nothing. However, I look round upon life quite cool.
Do you heed me, neighbours? My words, though made
as simple as I can, mid be rather deep for some heads."
"O yes, Henery, we quite heed ye."
"A strange old piece, goodmen -- whirled about from
here to yonder, as if I were nothing! A little warped,
too. But I have my depths; ha, and even my great
depths! I might gird at a certain shepherd, brain to
brain. But no -- O no!"
"A strange old piece, ye say!" interposed the maltster,
in a querulous voice. "At the same time ye be no old
man worth naming -- no old man at all. Yer teeth
bain't half gone yet; and what's a old man's standing
if se be his teeth bain't gone? Weren't I stale in
wedlock afore ye were out of arms? 'Tis a poor thing
to be sixty, when there's people far past four-score -- a
boast'weak as water."
It was the unvaying custom in Weatherbury to
sink minor differences when the maltster had to be
pacified.
"Weak as-water! yes." said Jan Coggan.- "Malter,
we feel ye to be a wonderful veteran man, and nobody
can gainsay it."
"Nobody." said Joseph Poorgrass. "Ye be a very
rare old spectacle, malter, and we all admire ye for that
gift. "
"Ay, and as a young man, when my senses were in
prosperity, I was likewise liked by a good-few who
knowed me." said the maltster.
"'Ithout doubt you was -- 'ithout doubt."
The bent and hoary 'man was satisfied, and so
apparently was Henery Frag. That matters should
continue pleasant Maryann spoke, who, what with her
brown complexion, and the working wrapper of rusty
linsey, had at present the mellow hue of an old sketch
in oils -- notably some of Nicholas Poussin's: --
"Do anybody know of a crooked man, or a lame, or
any second-hand fellow at all that would do for poor
me?" said Maryann. "A perfect one I don't expect to
at my time of life. If I could hear of such a thing
twould do me more good than toast and ale."
Coggan furnished a suitable reply. Oak went on
with his shearing, and said not another word. Pestilent
moods had come, and teased away his quiet. Bathsheba
had shown indications of anointing him above his
fellows by installing him as the bailiff that the farm
imperatively required. He did not covet the post
relatively to the farm: in relation to herself, as beloved
by him and unmarried to another, he had coveted it.
His readings of her seemed now to be vapoury and
indistinct. His lecture to her was, he thought, one of
the absurdest mistakes. Far from coquetting with
Boldwood, she had trifled with himself in thus feigning
that she had trifled with another. He was inwardly
convinced that, in accordance with the anticipations of
his easy-going and worse-educated comrades, that day
would see Boldwood the accepted husband of Miss
Everdene. Gabriel at this time of his life had out-
grown the instinctive dislike which every Christian
boy has for reading the Bible, perusing it now quite
frequently, and he inwardly said, "I find more bitter
than death the woman whose heart is snares and
nets!" This was mere exclamation -- the froth of the
storm. He adored Bathsheba just the same.
"We workfolk shall have some lordly- junketing
to-night." said Cainy Ball, casting forth his thoughts in
a new direction. "This morning I see'em making the
great puddens in the milking-pails -- lumps of fat as big
as yer thumb, Mister Oak! I've never seed such
splendid large knobs of fat before in the days of my
life -- they never used to be bigger then a horse-bean.
And there was a great black crock upon the brandish
with his legs a-sticking out, but I don't know what was
in within."
"And there's two bushels of biffins for apple-pies,"
said Maryann.
"Well, I hope to do my duty by it all." said Joseph
Poorgrass, in a pleasant, masticating manner of anticipa-
tion. "Yes; victuals and drink is a cheerful thing,
and gives nerves to the nerveless, if the form of words
may be used. 'Tis the gospel of the body, without
which we perish, so to speak it."





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