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CHAPTER 5.


A few score yards brought them to the spot where the town
band was now shaking the window-panes with the strains of
"The Roast Beef of Old England."

The building before whose doors they had pitched their
music-stands was the chief hotel in Casterbridge--namely,
the King's Arms. A spacious bow-window projected into the
street over the main portico, and from the open sashes came
the babble of voices, the jingle of glasses, and the drawing
of corks. The blinds, moreover, being left unclosed, the
whole interior of this room could be surveyed from the top
of a flight of stone steps to the road-waggon office
opposite, for which reason a knot of idlers had gathered
there.

"We might, perhaps, after all, make a few inquiries about--
our relation Mr. Henchard," whispered Mrs. Newson who, since
her entry into Casterbridge, had seemed strangely weak and
agitated, "And this, I think, would be a good place for
trying it--just to ask, you know, how he stands in the town--
if he is here, as I think he must be. You, Elizabeth-Jane,
had better be the one to do it. I'm too worn out to do
anything--pull down your fall first."

She sat down upon the lowest step, and Elizabeth-Jane obeyed
her directions and stood among the idlers.

"What's going on to-night?" asked the girl, after singling
out an old man and standing by him long enough to acquire a
neighbourly right of converse.

"Well, ye must be a stranger sure," said the old man,
without taking his eyes from the window. "Why, 'tis a great
public dinner of the gentle-people and such like leading
volk--wi' the Mayor in the chair. As we plainer fellows
bain't invited, they leave the winder-shutters open that we
may get jist a sense o't out here. If you mount the steps
you can see em. That's Mr. Henchard, the Mayor, at the end
of the table, a facing ye; and that's the Council men right
and left....Ah, lots of them when they begun life were no
more than I be now!"

"Henchard!" said Elizabeth-Jane, surprised, but by no means
suspecting the whole force of the revelation. She ascended
to the top of the steps.

Her mother, though her head was bowed, had already caught
from the inn-window tones that strangely riveted her
attention, before the old man's words, "Mr. Henchard, the
Mayor," reached her ears. She arose, and stepped up to her
daughter's side as soon as she could do so without showing
exceptional eagerness.

The interior of the hotel dining-room was spread out before
her, with its tables, and glass, and plate, and inmates.
Facing the window, in the chair of dignity, sat a man about
forty years of age; of heavy frame, large features, and
commanding voice; his general build being rather coarse than
compact. He had a rich complexion, which verged on
swarthiness, a flashing black eye, and dark, bushy brows and
hair. When he indulged in an occasional loud laugh at some
remark among the guests, his large mouth parted so far back
as to show to the rays of the chandelier a full score or
more of the two-and-thirty sound white teeth that he
obviously still could boast of.

That laugh was not encouraging to strangers, and hence it
may have been well that it was rarely heard. Many theories
might have been built upon it. It fell in well with
conjectures of a temperament which would have no pity for
weakness, but would be ready to yield ungrudging admiration
to greatness and strength. Its producer's personal
goodness, if he had any, would be of a very fitful cast--an
occasional almost oppressive generosity rather than a mild
and constant kindness.

Susan Henchard's husband--in law, at least--sat before them,
matured in shape, stiffened in line, exaggerated in traits;
disciplined, thought-marked--in a word, older. Elizabeth,
encumbered with no recollections as her mother was, regarded
him with nothing more than the keen curiosity and interest
which the discovery of such unexpected social standing in
the long-sought relative naturally begot. He was dressed in
an old-fashioned evening suit, an expanse of frilled shirt
showing on his broad breast; jewelled studs, and a heavy
gold chain. Three glasses stood at his right hand; but, to
his wife's surprise, the two for wine were empty, while the
third, a tumbler, was half full of water.

When last she had seen him he was sitting in a corduroy
jacket, fustian waistcoat and breeches, and tanned leather
leggings, with a basin of hot furmity before him. Time, the
magician, had wrought much here. Watching him, and thus
thinking of past days, she became so moved that she shrank
back against the jamb of the waggon-office doorway to which
the steps gave access, the shadow from it conveniently
hiding her features. She forgot her daughter till a touch
from Elizabeth-Jane aroused her. "Have you seen him,
mother?" whispered the girl.

"Yes, yes," answered her companion hastily. "I have seen
him, and it is enough for me! Now I only want to go--pass
away--die."

"Why--O what?" She drew closer, and whispered in her
mother's ear, "Does he seem to you not likely to befriend
us? I thought he looked a generous man. What a gentleman he
is, isn't he? and how his diamond studs shine! How strange
that you should have said he might be in the stocks, or in
the workhouse, or dead! Did ever anything go more by
contraries! Why do you feel so afraid of him? I am not at
all;I'll call upon him--he can but say he don't own such
remote kin."

"I don't know at all--I can't tell what to set about. I
feel so down."

"Don't be that, mother, now we have got here and all! Rest
there where you be a little while--I will look on and find
out more about him."

"I don't think I can ever meet Mr. Henchard. He is not how
I thought he would be--he overpowers me! I don't wish to see
him any more."

"But wait a little time and consider."

Elizabeth-Jane had never been so much interested in anything
in her life as in their present position, partly from the
natural elation she felt at discovering herself akin to a
coach; and she gazed again at the scene. The younger guests
were talking and eating with animation; their elders were
searching for titbits, and sniffing and grunting over their
plates like sows nuzzling for acorns. Three drinks seemed
to be sacred to the company--port, sherry, and rum; outside
which old-established trinity few or no palates ranged.

A row of ancient rummers with ground figures on their sides,
and each primed with a spoon, was now placed down the table,
and these were promptly filled with grog at such high
temperatures as to raise serious considerations for the
articles exposed to its vapours. But Elizabeth-Jane noticed
that, though this filling went on with great promptness up
and down the table, nobody filled the Mayor's glass, who
still drank large quantities of water from the tumbler
behind the clump of crystal vessels intended for wine and
spirits.

"They don't fill Mr. Henchard's wine-glasses," she ventured
to say to her elbow acquaintance, the old man.

"Ah, no; don't ye know him to be the celebrated abstaining
worthy of that name? He scorns all tempting liquors; never
touches nothing. O yes, he've strong qualities that way. I
have heard tell that he sware a gospel oath in bygone times,
and has bode by it ever since. So they don't press him,
knowing it would be unbecoming in the face of that: for yer
gospel oath is a serious thing."

Another elderly man, hearing this discourse, now joined in
by inquiring, "How much longer have he got to suffer from
it, Solomon Longways?"

"Another two year, they say. I don't know the why and the
wherefore of his fixing such a time, for 'a never has told
anybody. But 'tis exactly two calendar years longer, they
say. A powerful mind to hold out so long!"

"True....But there's great strength in hope. Knowing that
in four-and-twenty months' time ye'll be out of your
bondage, and able to make up for all you've suffered, by
partaking without stint--why, it keeps a man up, no doubt."

"No doubt, Christopher Coney, no doubt. And 'a must need
such reflections--a lonely widow man," said Longways.

"When did he lose his wife?" asked Elizabeth.

"I never knowed her. 'Twas afore he came to Casterbridge,"
Solomon Longways replied with terminative emphasis, as if
the fact of his ignorance of Mrs. Henchard were sufficient
to deprive her history of all interest. "But I know that
'a's a banded teetotaller, and that if any of his men be
ever so little overtook by a drop he's down upon 'em as
stern as the Lord upon the jovial Jews."

"Has he many men, then?" said Elizabeth-Jane.

"Many! Why, my good maid, he's the powerfullest member of
the Town Council, and quite a principal man in the country
round besides. Never a big dealing in wheat, barley, oats,
hay, roots, and such-like but Henchard's got a hand in it.
Ay, and he'll go into other things too; and that's where he
makes his mistake. He worked his way up from nothing when
'a came here; and now he's a pillar of the town. Not but
what he's been shaken a little to-year about this bad corn
he has supplied in his contracts. I've seen the sun rise
over Durnover Moor these nine-and-sixty year, and though Mr.
Henchard has never cussed me unfairly ever since I've worked
for'n, seeing I be but a little small man, I must say that I
have never before tasted such rough bread as has been made
from Henchard's wheat lately. 'Tis that growed out that ye
could a'most call it malt, and there's a list at bottom o'
the loaf as thick as the sole of one's shoe."

The band now struck up another melody, and by the time it
was ended the dinner was over, and speeches began to be
made. The evening being calm, and the windows still open,
these orations could be distinctly heard. Henchard's voice
arose above the rest; he was telling a story of his hay-
dealing experiences, in which he had outwitted a sharper who
had been bent upon outwitting him.

"Ha-ha-ha!" responded his audience at the upshot of the
story; and hilarity was general till a new voice arose with,
"This is all very well; but how about the bad bread?"

It came from the lower end of the table, where there sat a
group of minor tradesmen who, although part of the company,
appeared to be a little below the social level of the
others; and who seemed to nourish a certain independence of
opinion and carry on discussions not quite in harmony with
those at the head; just as the west end of a church is
sometimes persistently found to sing out of time and tune
with the leading spirits in the chancel.

This interruption about the bad bread afforded infinite
satisfaction to the loungers outside, several of whom were
in the mood which finds its pleasure in others'
discomfiture; and hence they echoed pretty freely, "Hey! How
about the bad bread, Mr. Mayor?" Moreover, feeling none of
the restraints of those who shared the feast, they could
afford to add, "You rather ought to tell the story o' that,
sir!"

The interruption was sufficient to compel the Mayor to
notice it.

"Well, I admit that the wheat turned out badly," he said.
"But I was taken in in buying it as much as the bakers who
bought it o' me."

"And the poor folk who had to eat it whether or no," said
the inharmonious man outside the window.

Henchard's face darkened. There was temper under the thin
bland surface--the temper which, artificially intensified,
had banished a wife nearly a score of years before.

"You must make allowances for the accidents of a large
business," he said. "You must bear in mind that the weather
just at the harvest of that corn was worse than we have
known it for years. However, I have mended my arrangements
on account o't. Since I have found my business too large to
be well looked after by myself alone, I have advertised for
a thorough good man as manager of the corn department. When
I've got him you will find these mistakes will no longer
occur--matters will be better looked into."

"But what are you going to do to repay us for the past?"
inquired the man who had before spoken, and who seemed to be
a baker or miller. "Will you replace the grown flour we've
still got by sound grain?"

Henchard's face had become still more stern at these
interruptions, and he drank from his tumbler of water as if
to calm himself or gain time. Instead of vouchsafing a
direct reply, he stiffly observed--

"If anybody will tell me how to turn grown wheat into
wholesome wheat I'll take it back with pleasure. But it
can't be done."

Henchard was not to be drawn again. Having said this, he
sat down.



The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy
Category:
English Classics
Book Review:
Thomas Hardy’s masterpiece "The Mayor of Casterbridge" proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that “character is destiny”, and in writing it Hardy proved that a tragedy can be one of the most enjoyable forms of literature. As in ancient Greek tragedies, the protagonist of
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