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CHAPTER VI



THE FAIR -- THE JOURNEY -- THE FIRE


TWO months passed away. We are brought on to a
day in February, on which was held the yearly statute
or hiring fair in the county-town of Casterbridge.
At one end of the street stood from two to three
hundred blithe and hearty labourers waiting upon Chance
-- all men of the stamp to whom labour suggests nothing
worse than a wrestle with gravitation, and pleasure
nothing better than a renunciation of the same among
these, carters and waggoners were distinguished by
having a piece of whip-cord twisted round their hats;
thatchers wore a fragment of woven straw; shepherds
held their sheep-crooks in their hands; and thus the
situation required was known to the hirers at a
glance.
In the crowd was an athletic young fellow of some-
what superior appearance to the rest -- in fact, his
superiority was marked enough to lead several ruddy
peasants standing by to speak to him inquiringly, as to
a farmer, and to use `Sir' as a finishing word. His
answer always was,
"I am looking for a place myself -- a bailiff's. Do
Ye know of anybody who wants one?"
Gabriel was paler now. His eyes were more medi-
tative, and his expression was more sad. He had
passed through an ordeal of wretchedness which had
given him more than it had taken away. He had sunk
from his modest elevation as pastoral king into the very
slime-pits of Siddim; but there was left to him a digni-
fied calm he had never before known, and that indiffer-
ence to fate which, though it often makes a villain of
a man, is the basis of his sublimity when it does not.
And thus the abasement had been exaltation, and the
loss gain.
In the morning a regiment of cavalry had left the
town, and a sergeant and his party had been beating up
for recruits through the four streets. As the end of the
day drew on, and he found himself not hired, Gabriel
almost wished that he had joined them, and gone off to
serve his country. Weary of standing in the market-
place, and not much minding the kind of work he
turned his hand to, he decided to offer himself in some
other capacity than that of bailiff.
All the farmers seemed to be wanting shepherds.
Sheep-tending was Gabriel's speciality. Turning down
an obscure street and entering an obscurer lane, he went
up to a smith's shop.
"How long would it take you to make a shepherd's
crook?"
"Twenty minutes."
"How much?"
"Two shillings."
He sat on a bench and the crook was made, a stem
being given him into the bargain.
He then went to a ready-made clothes' shop, the
owner of which had a large rural connection. As the
crook had absorbed most of Gabriel's money, he
attempted, and carried out, an exchange of his overcoat
for a shepherd's regulation smock-frock.
This transaction having been completed, he again
hurried off to the centre of the town, and stood on the
kerb of the pavement, as a shepherd, crook in hand.
Now that Oak had turned himself into a shepherd, it
seemed that bailifs were most in demand. However, two
or three farmers noticed him and drew near. Dialogues
followed, more or lessin the subjoined for: --
"Where do you come from?"
"Norcombe."
"That's a long way.
"Fifteen miles."
"Who's farm were you upon last?"
"My own."
This reply invariably operated like a rumour of
cholera. The inquiring farmer would edge away and
shake his head dubiously. Gabriel, like his dog, was
too good to be trustworthy,. and he never made advance
beyond this point.
It is safer to accept any chance that offers itself, and
extemporize a procedure to fit it, than to get a good
shepherd, but had laid himself out for anything in the
whole cycle of labour that was required in the fair. It
grew dusk. Some merry men were whistling and
singing by the corn-exchange. Gabriel's hand, which
had lain for some time idle in his smock-frock pocket,
touched his flute which he carried there. Here was
an opportunity for putting his dearly bought wisdom
into practice.
He drew out his flute and began to play "Jockey to
the Fair" in the style of a man who had never known
moment's sorrow. Oak could pipe with Arcadian
sweetness and the sound of the well-known notes
cheered his own heart as well as those of the loungers.
He played on with spirit, and in half an hour had
earned in pence what was a small fortune to a destitute
man.
By making inquiries he learnt that there was another
fair at Shottsford the next day.
"How far is Shottsford?"
"Ten miles t'other side of Weatherbury."
Weatherbury! It was where Bathsheba had gone
two months before. This information was like coming
from night into noon.
"How far is it to Weatherbury?"
"Five or six miles."
Bathsheba had probably left Weatherbury long before
this time, but the place had enough interest attaching
to it to lead Oak to choose Shottsford fair as his next
field of inquiry, because it lay in the Weatherbury
quarter. Moreover, the Weatherbury folk were by no
means uninteresting intrinsically. If report spoke truly
they were as hardy, merry, thriving, wicked a set as
any in the whole county. Oak resolved to sleep at
Weatherbury -- that -- night on his way to Shottsford,
and struck out at once -- into the -- high road which had
been recommended as the direct route to the village in
question.
The road stretched through water-meadows traversed
by little brooks, whose quivering surfaces were braided
along their centres, and folded into creases at the sides;
or, where the flow was more rapid, the stream was pied
with spots of white froth, which rode on in undisturbed
serenity. On the higher levels the dead and dry carcasses
of leaves tapped the ground as they bowled along helter-
skelter upon the shoulders of the wind, and little birds
in the hedges were rustling their feathers and tucking
themselves in comfortably for the night, retaining their
places if Oak kept moving, but flying away if he
stopped to look at them. He passed by Yalbury-Wood
where the game-birds were rising to their roosts, and
heard the crack-voiced cock-pheasants "cu-uck, cuck,"
and the wheezy whistle of the hens.
By the time he had walked three or four miles every
shape in the-landscape had assumed a uniform hue of
blackness. He descended Yalbury Hill and could just
discern ahead of him a waggon, drawn up under a great
over-hanging tree by the roadside.
On coming close, he found there were no horses
attached to it, the spot being apparently quite deserted.
The waggon, from its position, seemed to have been left
there for the night, for beyond about half a truss of hay
which was heaped in the bottom, it was quite empty.
Gabriel sat down on the shafts of the vehicle and con-
sidered his position. He calculated that he had walked
a very fair proportion of the journey; and having been
on foot since daybreak, he felt tempted to lie down upon
the hay in the waggon instead of pushing on to the
village of Weatherbury, and having to pay for a lodging.
Eating his las slices of bread and ham, and drinking
from the bottle of cider he had taken the precaution to
bring with him, he got into the lonely waggon. Here
he spread half of the hay as a bed, and, as well as he
could in the darkness, pulled the other half over him
by way of bed-clothes, covering himself entirely, and
feeling, physically, as comfortable as ever he had been
in his life. Inward melancholy it was impossible for
a man like Oak, introspective far beyond his neighbours,
to banish quite, whilst conning the present. untoward
page of his history. So, thinking of his misfortunes,
amorous and pastoral he fell asleep, shepherds enjoying,
in common with sailors, the privilege of being able to
summon the god instead of having to wait for him.
On somewhat suddenly awaking after a sleep of
whose length he had no idea, Oak found that the waggon
was in motion. He was being carried along the road
at a rate rather considerable for a vehicle without
springs, and under circumstances of physical uneasiness,
his head being dandled up and down on the bed of
the waggon like a kettledrum-stick. He then dis-
tinguished voices in conversation, coming from the
forpart of the waggon. His concern at this dilemma
(which would have been alarm, had he been a thriving
man; but -- misfortune is a fine opiate to personal terror)
led him to peer cautiously from the hay, and the first
sight he beheld was the stars above him. Charles's
Wain was getting towards a right angle with the Pole
star, and Gabriel concluded that it must be about nine
o'clock -- in other words, that he had slept two hours.
This small astronomical calculation was made without
any positive effort, and whilst he was stealthily turning
to discover, if possible, into whose hands he had fallen.
Two figures were dimly visible in front, sitting with
their legs outside the waggon, one of whom was driving.
Gabriel soon found that this was the waggoner, and it
appeared they had come from Casterbridge fair, like
himself.
A conversation was in progress, which continued
thus: --
"Be as 'twill, she's a fine handsome body as far's
looks be concerned. But that's only the skin of the
woman, and these dandy cattle be as-proud as a lucifer
in their insides."
"Ay -- so 'a do seem, Billy Smallbury -- so 'a do seem."
This utterance was very shaky by nature, and more so
by circumstance, the jolting of the waggon not being-
without its effect upon the speaker's larynx. It came
"from the man who held the reins.
"She's a very vain feymell -- so 'tis said here and
there."
"Ah, now. If so be 'tis like that, I can't look her in
the face. Lord, no: not I -- heh-heh-heh! Such a shy
man as I be!"
"Yes -- she's very vain. 'Tis said that every night at
going to bed she looks in the glass to put on her night-
cap properly."
"And not a married woman. Oh, the world!"
"And 'a can play the peanner, so 'tis said. Can
play so clever that 'a can make a psalm tune sound as
well as the merriest loose song a man can wish for."
"D'ye tell o't! A happy time for us, and I feel quite
a new man! And how do she play?"
"That I don't know, Master Poorgrass."
On hearing these and other similar remarks, a wild
thought flashed into Gabriel's mind that they might
be speaking of Bathsheba. There were, however, no
ground for retaining such a supposition, for the waggon,
though going in the direction of Weatherbury, might be
going beyond it, and the woman alluded to seemed to be
the mistress of some estate. They were now apparently
close upon Weatherbury and not to alarm the speakers
unnecessarily, Gabriel slipped out of the waggon unseen.
He turned to an opening in the hedge, which he
found to be a gate, and mounting thereon, he sat
meditating whether to seek a cheap lodging in the
village, or to ensure a cheaper one by lying under
some hay or corn-stack. The crunching jangle of the
waggon died upon his ear. He was about to walk on,
when he noticed on his left hand an unusual light --
appearing about half a mile distant. Oak watched it,
and the glow increased. Something was on fire.
Gabriel again mounted the gate, and, leaping down
on the other side upon what he found to be ploughed
soil, made across the field in the exact direction of the
fire. The blaze, enlarging in a double ratio by his
approach and its own increase, showed him as he drew
nearer the outlines of ricks beside it, lighted up to great
distinctness. A rick-yard was the source of the fire.
His weary face now began to be painted over with a
rich orange glow, and the whole front of his smock-
frock and gaiters was covered with a dancing shadow
pattern of thorn-twigs -- the light reaching him through
a leafless intervening hedge -- and the metallic curve of
his sheep-crook shone silver-bright in the same abound-
ing rays. He came up to the boundary fence, and
stood to regain breath. It seemed as if the spot was
unoccupied by a living soul.
The fire was issuing from a long straw-stack, which
was so far gone as to preclude a possibility of saving it.
A rick burns differently from a house. As the wind
blows the fire inwards, the portion in flames completely
disappears like melting sugar, and the outline is lost
to the eye. However, a hay or a wheat-rick, well put
together, will resist combustion for a length of time, if
it begins on the outside.
This before Gabriel's eyes was a- rick of straw, loosely
put together, and the flames darted into it with lightning
swiftness. It glowed on the windward side, rising and
falling in intensity, like the coal of a cigar. Then a
superincumbent bundle rolled down, with a whisking
noise; flames elongated, and bent themselves about
with a quiet roar, but no crackle. Banks of smoke
went off horizontally at the back like passing clouds,
and behind these burned hidden pyres, illuminating
the semi-transparent sheet of smoke to a lustrous yellow
uniformity. Individual straws in the foreground were
consumed in a creeping movement of ruddy heat, as
if they were knots of red worms, and above shone
imaginary fiery faces, tongues hanging from lips, glaring
eyes, and other impish forms, from which at intervals
sparks flew in clusters like birds from a nest,
Oak suddenly ceased from being a mere spectator
by discovering the case to be more serious than he had
at first imagined. A scroll of smoke blew aside and
revealed to him a wheat-rick in startling juxtaposition
with the decaying one, and behind this a series of
others, composing the main corn produce of the farm;
so that instead of the straw-stack standing, as he had
imagined comparatively isolated, there was a regular
connection between it and the remaining stacks of the
group.
Gabriel leapt over the hedge, and saw that he was
not alone. The first man he came to was running
about in a great hurry, as if his thoughts were several
yards in advance of his body, which they could never
drag on fast enough.
"O, man -- fire, fire! A good master and a. bad
servant is fire, fire! -- I mane a bad servant and a good
master O, Mark Clark -- come! And you, Billy
Smallbury -- and you, Maryann Money -- and you, Jan
Coggan, and Matthew there!" Other figures now
appeared behind this shouting man and among the
smoke, and Gabriel found that, far from being alone
he was in a great company -- whose shadows danced
merrily up and down, timed by the jigging of the
flames, and not at all by their owners' movements.
The assemblage -- belonging to that class of society
which casts its thoughts into the form of feeling, and
its feelings into the form of commotion -- set to work
with a remarkable confusion of purpose.
"Stop the draught under the wheat-rick!" cried
Gabriel to those nearest to him. The corn stood on
stone staddles, and between these, tongues of yellow
hue from the burning straw licked and darted playfully.
If the fire once got under this stack, all would be
lost.
"Get a tarpaulin -- quick!" said Gabriel.
A rick-cloth was brought, and they hung it like a
curtain across the channel. The flames immediately
ceased to go under the bottom of the corn-stack, and
stood up vertical.
"Stand here with a bucket of water and keep the
cloth wet." said Gabriel again.
The flames, now driven upwards, began to attack
the angles of the huge roof covering the wheat-stack.
"A ladder." cried Gabriel.
"The ladder was against the straw-rick and is burnt
to a cinder." said a spectre-like form in the smoke.
Oak seized the cut ends of the sheaves, as if he
were going to engage in the operation of "reed-drawing,"
and digging in his feet, and occasionally sticking in the
stem of his sheep-crook, he clambered up the beetling
face. He at once sat astride the very apex, and began
with his crook to beat off the fiery fragments which had
lodged thereon, shouting to the others to get him a
bough and a ladder, and some water.
Billy Smallbury -- one of the men who had been on
the waggon -- by this time had found a ladder, which
Mark Clark ascended, holding on beside Oak upon the
thatch. The smoke at this corner was stifling, and
Clark, a nimble fellow, having been handed a bucket
of water, bathed Oak's face and sprinkled him generally,
whilst Gabriel, now with a long beech-bough in one
hand, in addition to his crook in the other, kept
sweeping the stack and dislodging all fiery particles.
On the ground the groups of villagers were still
occupied in doing all they could to keep down the
conflagration, which was not much. They were all
tinged orange, and backed up by shadows of varying
pattern. Round the corner of the largest stack, out
of the direct rays of the fire, stood a pony, bearing a
young woman on its back. By her side was another
woman, on foot. These two seemed to keep at a
distance from the fire, that the horse might not become
restive.
"He's a shepherd." said the woman on foot. "Yes --
he is. See how his crook shines as he beats the rick
with it. And his smock-frock is burnt in two holes, I
declare! A fine young shepherd he is too, ma'am."
"Whose shepherd is he?" said the equestrian in a
clear voice.
"Don't know, ma'am." "Don't any of the others know?"
"Nobody at all -- I've asked 'em. Quite a stranger,
they say."
The young woman on the pony rode out from the
shade and looked anxiously around.
"Do you think the barn is safe?" she said.
"D'ye think the barn is safe, Jan Coggan?" said
the second woman, passing on the question to the
nearest man in that direction.
"Safe -now -- leastwise I think so. If this rick had
gone the barn would have followed. 'Tis- that bold
shepherd up there that have done the most good -- he
sitting on the top o' rick, whizzing his great long-arms
about like a windmill."
"He does work hard." said the young woman on
horseback, looking up at Gabriel through her thick
woollen veil. "I wish he was shepherd here. Don't
any of you know his name."
"Never heard the man's name in my life, or seed
his form afore."
The fire began to get worsted, and Gabriel's elevated
position being no longer required of him, he made as
if to descend.
"Maryann." said the girl on horseback, "go to him
as he comes down, and say that the farmer wishes to
thank him for the great service he has done."
Maryann stalked off towards the rick and met
Oak at the foot of the ladder. She delivered her
message.
"Where is your master the farmer?" asked Gabriel,
kindling with the idea of getting employment that
seemed to strike him now.
"'Tisn't a master; 'tis a mistress, shepherd."
"A woman farmer?"
"Ay, 'a b'lieve, and a rich one too!" said a by-
stander. "Lately 'a came here from a distance. Took
on her uncle's farm, who died suddenly. Used to
measure his money in half-pint cups. They say now
that she've business in every bank in Casterbridge, and
thinks no more of playing pitch-and-toss sovereign than
you and I, do pitch-halfpenny -- not a bit in the world,
shepherd."
"That's she, back there upon the pony." said Mary-
ann. "wi' her face a-covered up in that black cloth with
holes in it."
Oak, his features smudged, grimy, and undiscoverable
from the smoke and heat, his smock-frock burnt-into
holes and dripping with water, the ash stem of his sheep-
crook charred six inches shorter, advansed with the
humility stern adversity had thrust upon him up to
the slight female form in the saddle. He lifted his
hat with respect, and not without gallantry: stepping
close to her hanging feet he said in a hesitating voice, --
"Do you happen to want a shepherd, ma'am?"
She lifted the wool veil tied round her face, and
looked all astonishment. Gabriel and his cold-hearted
darling, Bathsheba Everdene, were face to face.
Bathsheba did not speak, and he mechanically
repeated in an abashed and sad voice, --
"Do you want a shepherd, ma'am?"





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