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CHAPTER VIII THE MALTHOUSE—THE CHAT—NEWS-1

Thomas HardyFeb 23, 2020'Command+D' Bookmark this page

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Warren’s Malthouse was enclosed by an old wall inwrapped with ivy, and though not much of the exterior was visible at this hour, the character and purposes of the building were clearly enough shown by its outline upon the sky. From the walls an overhanging thatched roof sloped up to a point in the centre, upon which rose a small wooden lantern, fitted with louvre-boards on all the four sides, and from these openings a mist was dimly perceived to be escaping into the night air. There was no window in front; but a square hole in the door was glazed with a single pane, through which red, comfortable rays now stretched out upon the ivied wall in front. Voices were to be heard inside.

Oak’s hand skimmed the surface of the door with fingers extended to an Elymas-the-Sorcerer pattern, till he found a leathern strap, which he pulled. This lifted a wooden latch, and the door swung open.

The room inside was lighted only by the ruddy glow from the kiln mouth, which shone over the floor with the streaming horizontality of the setting sun, and threw upwards the shadows of all facial irregularities in those assembled around. The stone-flag floor was worn into a path from the doorway to the kiln, and into undulations everywhere. A curved settle of unplaned oak stretched along one side, and in a remote corner was a small bed and bedstead, the owner and frequent occupier of which was the maltster.

This aged man was now sitting opposite the fire, his frosty white hair and beard overgrowing his gnarled figure like the grey moss and lichen upon a leafless apple-tree. He wore breeches and the laced-up shoes called ankle-jacks; he kept his eyes fixed upon the fire.

Gabriel’s nose was greeted by an atmosphere laden with the sweet smell of new malt. The conversation (which seemed to have been concerning the origin of the fire) immediately ceased, and every one ocularly criticised him to the degree expressed by contracting the flesh of their foreheads and looking at him with narrowed eyelids, as if he had been a light too strong for their sight. Several exclaimed meditatively, after this operation had been completed:—

“Oh, ’tis the new shepherd, ‘a b’lieve.”

“We thought we heard a hand pawing about the door for the bobbin, but weren’t sure ’twere not a dead leaf blowed across,” said another. “Come in, shepherd; sure ye be welcome, though we don’t know yer name.”

“Gabriel Oak, that’s my name, neighbours.”

The ancient maltster sitting in the midst turned at this—his turning being as the turning of a rusty crane.

“That’s never Gable Oak’s grandson over at Norcombe—never!” he said, as a formula expressive of surprise, which nobody was supposed for a moment to take literally.

“My father and my grandfather were old men of the name of Gabriel,” said the shepherd, placidly.

“Thought I knowed the man’s face as I seed him on the rick!—thought I did! And where be ye trading o’t to now, shepherd?”

“I’m thinking of biding here,” said Mr. Oak.

“Knowed yer grandfather for years and years!” continued the maltster, the words coming forth of their own accord as if the momentum previously imparted had been sufficient.

“Ah—and did you!”

“Knowed yer grandmother.”

“And her too!”

“Likewise knowed yer father when he was a child. Why, my boy Jacob there and your father were sworn brothers—that they were sure—weren’t ye, Jacob?”

“Ay, sure,” said his son, a young man about sixty-five, with a semi-bald head and one tooth in the left centre of his upper jaw, which made much of itself by standing prominent, like a milestone in a bank. “But ’twas Joe had most to do with him. However, my son William must have knowed the very man afore us—didn’t ye, Billy, afore ye left Norcombe?”

“No, ’twas Andrew,” said Jacob’s son Billy, a child of forty, or thereabouts, who manifested the peculiarity of possessing a cheerful soul in a gloomy body, and whose whiskers were assuming a chinchilla shade here and there.

“I can mind Andrew,” said Oak, “as being a man in the place when I was quite a child.”

“Ay—the other day I and my youngest daughter, Liddy, were over at my grandson’s christening,” continued Billy. “We were talking about this very family, and ’twas only last Purification Day in this very world, when the use-money is gied away to the second-best poor folk, you know, shepherd, and I can mind the day because they all had to traypse up to the vestry—yes, this very man’s family.”

“Come, shepherd, and drink. ‘Tis gape and swaller with us—a drap of sommit, but not of much account,” said the maltster, removing from the fire his eyes, which were vermilion-red and bleared by gazing into it for so many years. “Take up the God-forgive-me, Jacob. See if ’tis warm, Jacob.”

Jacob stooped to the God-forgive-me, which was a two-handled tall mug standing in the ashes, cracked and charred with heat: it was rather furred with extraneous matter about the outside, especially in the crevices of the handles, the innermost curves of which may not have seen daylight for several years by reason of this encrustation thereon—formed of ashes accidentally wetted with cider and baked hard; but to the mind of any sensible drinker the cup was no worse for that, being incontestably clean on the inside and about the rim. It may be observed that such a class of mug is called a God-forgive-me in Weatherbury and its vicinity for uncertain reasons; probably because its size makes any given toper feel ashamed of himself when he sees its bottom in drinking it empty.

Jacob, on receiving the order to see if the liquor was warm enough, placidly dipped his forefinger into it by way of thermometer, and having pronounced it nearly of the proper degree, raised the cup and very civilly attempted to dust some of the ashes from the bottom with the skirt of his smock-frock, because Shepherd Oak was a stranger.

“A clane cup for the shepherd,” said the maltster commandingly.

“No—not at all,” said Gabriel, in a reproving tone of considerateness. “I never fuss about dirt in its pure state, and when I know what sort it is.” Taking the mug he drank an inch or more from the depth of its contents, and duly passed it to the next man. “I wouldn’t think of giving such trouble to neighbours in washing up when there’s so much work to be done in the world already.” continued Oak in a moister tone, after recovering from the stoppage of breath which is occasioned by pulls at large mugs.

“A right sensible man,” said Jacob.

“True, true; it can’t be gainsaid!” observed a brisk young man—Mark Clark by name, a genial and pleasant gentleman, whom to meet anywhere in your travels was to know, to know was to drink with, and to drink with was, unfortunately, to pay for.

“And here’s a mouthful of bread and bacon that mis’ess have sent, shepherd. The cider will go down better with a bit of victuals. Don’t ye chaw quite close, shepherd, for I let the bacon fall in the road outside as I was bringing it along, and may be ’tis rather gritty. There, ’tis clane dirt; and we all know what that is, as you say, and you bain’t a particular man we see, shepherd.”

“True, true—not at all,” said the friendly Oak.

“Don’t let your teeth quite meet, and you won’t feel the sandiness at all. Ah! ’tis wonderful what can be done by contrivance!”

“My own mind exactly, neighbour.”

“Ah, he’s his grandfer’s own grandson!—his grandfer were just such a nice unparticular man!” said the maltster.

“Drink, Henry Fray—drink,” magnanimously said Jan Coggan, a person who held Saint-Simonian notions of share and share alike where liquor was concerned, as the vessel showed signs of approaching him in its gradual revolution among them.

Having at this moment reached the end of a wistful gaze into mid-air, Henry did not refuse. He was a man of more than middle age, with eyebrows high up in his forehead, who laid it down that the law of the world was bad, with a long-suffering look through his listeners at the world alluded to, as it presented itself to his imagination. He always signed his name “Henery”—strenuously insisting upon that spelling, and if any passing schoolmaster ventured to remark that the second “e” was superfluous and old-fashioned, he received the reply that “H-e-n-e-r-y” was the name he was christened and the name he would stick to—in the tone of one to whom orthographical differences were matters which had a great deal to do with personal character.

Mr. Jan Coggan, who had passed the cup to Henery, was a crimson man with a spacious countenance and private glimmer in his eye, whose name had appeared on the marriage register of Weatherbury and neighbouring parishes as best man and chief witness in countless unions of the previous twenty years; he also very frequently filled the post of head godfather in baptisms of the subtly-jovial kind.

“Come, Mark Clark—come. Ther’s plenty more in the barrel,” said Jan.

“Ay—that I will, ’tis my only doctor,” replied Mr. Clark, who, twenty years younger than Jan Coggan, revolved in the same orbit. He secreted mirth on all occasions for special discharge at popular parties.

“Why, Joseph Poorgrass, ye han’t had a drop!” said Mr. Coggan to a self-conscious man in the background, thrusting the cup towards him.

“Such a modest man as he is!” said Jacob Smallbury. “Why, ye’ve hardly had strength of eye enough to look in our young mis’ess’s face, so I hear, Joseph?”

All looked at Joseph Poorgrass with pitying reproach.

“No—I’ve hardly looked at her at all,” simpered Joseph, reducing his body smaller whilst talking, apparently from a meek sense of undue prominence. “And when I seed her, ’twas nothing but blushes with me!”

“Poor feller,” said Mr. Clark.

“‘Tis a curious nature for a man,” said Jan Coggan.

“Yes,” continued Joseph Poorgrass—his shyness, which was so painful as a defect, filling him with a mild complacency now that it was regarded as an interesting study. “‘Twere blush, blush, blush with me every minute of the time, when she was speaking to me.”

“I believe ye, Joseph Poorgrass, for we all know ye to be a very bashful man.”

“‘Tis a’ awkward gift for a man, poor soul,” said the maltster. “And how long have ye have suffered from it, Joseph?” [a]

 

Transcriber’s note a:

Alternate text: appears in all three editions on hand:

 

“‘Tis a’ awkward gift for a man, poor soul,” said the maltster. “And ye have suffered from it a long time, we know.”

 

“Ay, ever since…”

 

“Oh, ever since I was a boy. Yes—mother was concerned to her heart about it—yes. But ’twas all nought.”

“Did ye ever go into the world to try and stop it, Joseph Poorgrass?”

“Oh ay, tried all sorts o’ company. They took me to Greenhill Fair, and into a great gay jerry-go-nimble show, where there were women-folk riding round—standing upon horses, with hardly anything on but their smocks; but it didn’t cure me a morsel. And then I was put errand-man at the Women’s Skittle Alley at the back of the Tailor’s Arms in Casterbridge. ‘Twas a horrible sinful situation, and a very curious place for a good man. I had to stand and look ba’dy people in the face from morning till night; but ’twas no use—I was just as bad as ever after all. Blushes hev been in the family for generations. There, ’tis a happy providence that I be no worse.”

“True,” said Jacob Smallbury, deepening his thoughts to a profounder view of the subject. “‘Tis a thought to look at, that ye might have been worse; but even as you be, ’tis a very bad affliction for ‘ee, Joseph. For ye see, shepherd, though ’tis very well for a woman, dang it all, ’tis awkward for a man like him, poor feller?”

“‘Tis—’tis,” said Gabriel, recovering from a meditation. “Yes, very awkward for the man.”

“Ay, and he’s very timid, too,” observed Jan Coggan. “Once he had been working late at Yalbury Bottom, and had had a drap of drink, and lost his way as he was coming home-along through Yalbury Wood, didn’t ye, Master Poorgrass?”

“No, no, no; not that story!” expostulated the modest man, forcing a laugh to bury his concern.

“—And so ‘a lost himself quite,” continued Mr. Coggan, with an impassive face, implying that a true narrative, like time and tide, must run its course and would respect no man. “And as he was coming along in the middle of the night, much afeared, and not able to find his way out of the trees nohow, ‘a cried out, ‘Man-a-lost! man-a-lost!’ A owl in a tree happened to be crying ‘Whoo-whoo-whoo!’ as owls do, you know, shepherd” (Gabriel nodded), “and Joseph, all in a tremble, said, ‘Joseph Poorgrass, of Weatherbury, sir!'”

“No, no, now—that’s too much!” said the timid man, becoming a man of brazen courage all of a sudden. “I didn’t say sir. I’ll take my oath I didn’t say ‘Joseph Poorgrass o’ Weatherbury, sir.’ No, no; what’s right is right, and I never said sir to the bird, knowing very well that no man of a gentleman’s rank would be hollering there at that time o’ night. ‘Joseph Poorgrass of Weatherbury,’—that’s every word I said, and I shouldn’t ha’ said that if ‘t hadn’t been for Keeper Day’s metheglin… There, ’twas a merciful thing it ended where it did.”

The question of which was right being tacitly waived by the company, Jan went on meditatively:—

“And he’s the fearfullest man, bain’t ye, Joseph? Ay, another time ye were lost by Lambing-Down Gate, weren’t ye, Joseph?”

“I was,” replied Poorgrass, as if there were some conditions too serious even for modesty to remember itself under, this being one.

“Yes; that were the middle of the night, too. The gate would not open, try how he would, and knowing there was the Devil’s hand in it, he kneeled down.”

“Ay,” said Joseph, acquiring confidence from the warmth of the fire, the cider, and a perception of the narrative capabilities of the experience alluded to. “My heart died within me, that time; but I kneeled down and said the Lord’s Prayer, and then the Belief right through, and then the Ten Commandments, in earnest prayer. But no, the gate wouldn’t open; and then I went on with Dearly Beloved Brethren, and, thinks I, this makes four, and ’tis all I know out of book, and if this don’t do it nothing will, and I’m a lost man. Well, when I got to Saying After Me, I rose from my knees and found the gate would open—yes, neighbours, the gate opened the same as ever.”

A meditation on the obvious inference was indulged in by all, and during its continuance each directed his vision into the ashpit, which glowed like a desert in the tropics under a vertical sun, shaping their eyes long and liny, partly because of the light, partly from the depth of the subject discussed.

Gabriel broke the silence. “What sort of a place is this to live at, and what sort of a mis’ess is she to work under?” Gabriel’s bosom thrilled gently as he thus slipped under the notice of the assembly the inner-most subject of his heart.

“We d’ know little of her—nothing. She only showed herself a few days ago. Her uncle was took bad, and the doctor was called with his world-wide skill; but he couldn’t save the man. As I take it, she’s going to keep on the farm.

“That’s about the shape o’t, ‘a b’lieve,” said Jan Coggan. “Ay, ’tis a very good family. I’d as soon be under ’em as under one here and there. Her uncle was a very fair sort of man. Did ye know en, shepherd—a bachelor-man?”

“Not at all.”

“I used to go to his house a-courting my first wife, Charlotte, who was his dairymaid. Well, a very good-hearted man were Farmer Everdene, and I being a respectable young fellow was allowed to call and see her and drink as much ale as I liked, but not to carry away any—outside my skin I mane of course.”

“Ay, ay, Jan Coggan; we know yer maning.”

“And so you see ’twas beautiful ale, and I wished to value his kindness as much as I could, and not to be so ill-mannered as to drink only a thimbleful, which would have been insulting the man’s generosity—”

“True, Master Coggan, ‘twould so,” corroborated Mark Clark.

“—And so I used to eat a lot of salt fish afore going, and then by the time I got there I were as dry as a lime-basket—so thorough dry that that ale would slip down—ah, ‘twould slip down sweet! Happy times! Heavenly times! Such lovely drunks as I used to have at that house! You can mind, Jacob? You used to go wi’ me sometimes.”

“I can—I can,” said Jacob. “That one, too, that we had at Buck’s Head on a White Monday was a pretty tipple.”

“‘Twas. But for a wet of the better class, that brought you no nearer to the horned man than you were afore you begun, there was none like those in Farmer Everdene’s kitchen. Not a single damn allowed; no, not a bare poor one, even at the most cheerful moment when all were blindest, though the good old word of sin thrown in here and there at such times is a great relief to a merry soul.”

“True,” said the maltster. “Nater requires her swearing at the regular times, or she’s not herself; and unholy exclamations is a necessity of life.”

“But Charlotte,” continued Coggan—”not a word of the sort would Charlotte allow, nor the smallest item of taking in vain… Ay, poor Charlotte, I wonder if she had the good fortune to get into Heaven when ‘a died! But ‘a was never much in luck’s way, and perhaps ‘a went downwards after all, poor soul.”

“And did any of you know Miss Everdene’s father and mother?” inquired the shepherd, who found some difficulty in keeping the conversation in the desired channel.

“I knew them a little,” said Jacob Smallbury; “but they were townsfolk, and didn’t live here. They’ve been dead for years. Father, what sort of people were mis’ess’ father and mother?”

“Well,” said the maltster, “he wasn’t much to look at; but she was a lovely woman. He was fond enough of her as his sweetheart.”

“Used to kiss her scores and long-hundreds o’ times, so ’twas said,” observed Coggan.

“He was very proud of her, too, when they were married, as I’ve been told,” said the maltster. “Ay,” said Coggan. “He admired her so much that he used to light the candle three times a night to look at her.”

“Boundless love; I shouldn’t have supposed it in the universe!” murmured Joseph Poorgrass, who habitually spoke on a large scale in his moral reflections.

“Well, to be sure,” said Gabriel.

“Oh, ’tis true enough. I knowed the man and woman both well. Levi Everdene—that was the man’s name, sure. ‘Man,’ saith I in my hurry, but he were of a higher circle of life than that—’a was a gentleman-tailor really, worth scores of pounds. And he became a very celebrated bankrupt two or three times.”

 

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