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CHAPTER VIII THE MALTHOUSE—THE CHAT—NEWS-2

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

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“Oh, I thought he was quite a common man!” said Joseph.

“Oh no, no! That man failed for heaps of money; hundreds in gold and silver.”

The maltster being rather short of breath, Mr. Coggan, after absently scrutinising a coal which had fallen among the ashes, took up the narrative, with a private twirl of his eye:—

“Well, now, you’d hardly believe it, but that man—our Miss Everdene’s father—was one of the ficklest husbands alive, after a while. Understand? ‘a didn’t want to be fickle, but he couldn’t help it. The pore feller were faithful and true enough to her in his wish, but his heart would rove, do what he would. He spoke to me in real tribulation about it once. ‘Coggan,’ he said, ‘I could never wish for a handsomer woman than I’ve got, but feeling she’s ticketed as my lawful wife, I can’t help my wicked heart wandering, do what I will.’ But at last I believe he cured it by making her take off her wedding-ring and calling her by her maiden name as they sat together after the shop was shut, and so ‘a would get to fancy she was only his sweetheart, and not married to him at all. And as soon as he could thoroughly fancy he was doing wrong and committing the seventh, ‘a got to like her as well as ever, and they lived on a perfect picture of mutel love.”

“Well, ’twas a most ungodly remedy,” murmured Joseph Poorgrass; “but we ought to feel deep cheerfulness that a happy Providence kept it from being any worse. You see, he might have gone the bad road and given his eyes to unlawfulness entirely—yes, gross unlawfulness, so to say it.”

“You see,” said Billy Smallbury, “The man’s will was to do right, sure enough, but his heart didn’t chime in.”

“He got so much better, that he was quite godly in his later years, wasn’t he, Jan?” said Joseph Poorgrass. “He got himself confirmed over again in a more serious way, and took to saying ‘Amen’ almost as loud as the clerk, and he liked to copy comforting verses from the tombstones. He used, too, to hold the money-plate at Let Your Light so Shine, and stand godfather to poor little come-by-chance children; and he kept a missionary box upon his table to nab folks unawares when they called; yes, and he would box the charity-boys’ ears, if they laughed in church, till they could hardly stand upright, and do other deeds of piety natural to the saintly inclined.”

“Ay, at that time he thought of nothing but high things,” added Billy Smallbury. “One day Parson Thirdly met him and said, ‘Good-Morning, Mister Everdene; ’tis a fine day!’ ‘Amen’ said Everdene, quite absent-like, thinking only of religion when he seed a parson. Yes, he was a very Christian man.”

“Their daughter was not at all a pretty chiel at that time,” said Henery Fray. “Never should have thought she’d have growed up such a handsome body as she is.”

“‘Tis to be hoped her temper is as good as her face.”

“Well, yes; but the baily will have most to do with the business and ourselves. Ah!” Henery gazed into the ashpit, and smiled volumes of ironical knowledge.

“A queer Christian, like the Devil’s head in a cowl, [1] as the saying is,” volunteered Mark Clark.

Footnote 1: This phrase is a conjectural emendation of the unintelligible expression, “as the Devil said to the Owl,” used by the natives.

“He is,” said Henery, implying that irony must cease at a certain point. “Between we two, man and man, I believe that man would as soon tell a lie Sundays as working-days—that I do so.”

“Good faith, you do talk!” said Gabriel.

“True enough,” said the man of bitter moods, looking round upon the company with the antithetic laughter that comes from a keener appreciation of the miseries of life than ordinary men are capable of. “Ah, there’s people of one sort, and people of another, but that man—bless your souls!”

Gabriel thought fit to change the subject. “You must be a very aged man, malter, to have sons growed mild and ancient,” he remarked.

“Father’s so old that ‘a can’t mind his age, can ye, father?” interposed Jacob. “And he’s growed terrible crooked too, lately,” Jacob continued, surveying his father’s figure, which was rather more bowed than his own. “Really one may say that father there is three-double.”

“Crooked folk will last a long while,” said the maltster, grimly, and not in the best humour.

“Shepherd would like to hear the pedigree of yer life, father—wouldn’t ye, shepherd?”

“Ay that I should,” said Gabriel with the heartiness of a man who had longed to hear it for several months. “What may your age be, malter?”

The maltster cleared his throat in an exaggerated form for emphasis, and elongating his gaze to the remotest point of the ashpit, said, in the slow speech justifiable when the importance of a subject is so generally felt that any mannerism must be tolerated in getting at it, “Well, I don’t mind the year I were born in, but perhaps I can reckon up the places I’ve lived at, and so get it that way. I bode at Upper Longpuddle across there” (nodding to the north) “till I were eleven. I bode seven at Kingsbere” (nodding to the east) “where I took to malting. I went therefrom to Norcombe, and malted there two-and-twenty years, and-two-and-twenty years I was there turnip-hoeing and harvesting. Ah, I knowed that old place, Norcombe, years afore you were thought of, Master Oak” (Oak smiled sincere belief in the fact). “Then I malted at Durnover four year, and four year turnip-hoeing; and I was fourteen times eleven months at Millpond St. Jude’s” (nodding north-west-by-north). “Old Twills wouldn’t hire me for more than eleven months at a time, to keep me from being chargeable to the parish if so be I was disabled. Then I was three year at Mellstock, and I’ve been here one-and-thirty year come Candlemas. How much is that?”

“Hundred and seventeen,” chuckled another old gentleman, given to mental arithmetic and little conversation, who had hitherto sat unobserved in a corner.

“Well, then, that’s my age,” said the maltster, emphatically.

“O no, father!” said Jacob. “Your turnip-hoeing were in the summer and your malting in the winter of the same years, and ye don’t ought to count-both halves, father.”

“Chok’ it all! I lived through the summers, didn’t I? That’s my question. I suppose ye’ll say next I be no age at all to speak of?”

“Sure we shan’t,” said Gabriel, soothingly.

“Ye be a very old aged person, malter,” attested Jan Coggan, also soothingly. “We all know that, and ye must have a wonderful talented constitution to be able to live so long, mustn’t he, neighbours?”

“True, true; ye must, malter, wonderful,” said the meeting unanimously.

The maltster, being now pacified, was even generous enough to voluntarily disparage in a slight degree the virtue of having lived a great many years, by mentioning that the cup they were drinking out of was three years older than he.

While the cup was being examined, the end of Gabriel Oak’s flute became visible over his smock-frock pocket, and Henery Fray exclaimed, “Surely, shepherd, I seed you blowing into a great flute by now at Casterbridge?”

“You did,” said Gabriel, blushing faintly. “I’ve been in great trouble, neighbours, and was driven to it. I used not to be so poor as I be now.”

“Never mind, heart!” said Mark Clark. “You should take it careless-like, shepherd, and your time will come. But we could thank ye for a tune, if ye bain’t too tired?”

“Neither drum nor trumpet have I heard since Christmas,” said Jan Coggan. “Come, raise a tune, Master Oak!”

“Ay, that I will,” said Gabriel, pulling out his flute and putting it together. “A poor tool, neighbours; but such as I can do ye shall have and welcome.”

Oak then struck up “Jockey to the Fair,” and played that sparkling melody three times through, accenting the notes in the third round in a most artistic and lively manner by bending his body in small jerks and tapping with his foot to beat time.

“He can blow the flute very well—that ‘a can,” said a young married man, who having no individuality worth mentioning was known as “Susan Tall’s husband.” He continued, “I’d as lief as not be able to blow into a flute as well as that.”

“He’s a clever man, and ’tis a true comfort for us to have such a shepherd,” murmured Joseph Poorgrass, in a soft cadence. “We ought to feel full o’ thanksgiving that he’s not a player of ba’dy songs instead of these merry tunes; for ‘twould have been just as easy for God to have made the shepherd a loose low man—a man of iniquity, so to speak it—as what he is. Yes, for our wives’ and daughters’ sakes we should feel real thanksgiving.”

“True, true,—real thanksgiving!” dashed in Mark Clark conclusively, not feeling it to be of any consequence to his opinion that he had only heard about a word and three-quarters of what Joseph had said.

“Yes,” added Joseph, beginning to feel like a man in the Bible; “for evil do thrive so in these times that ye may be as much deceived in the cleanest shaved and whitest shirted man as in the raggedest tramp upon the turnpike, if I may term it so.”

“Ay, I can mind yer face now, shepherd,” said Henery Fray, criticising Gabriel with misty eyes as he entered upon his second tune. “Yes—now I see ‘ee blowing into the flute I know ‘ee to be the same man I see play at Casterbridge, for yer mouth were scrimped up and yer eyes a-staring out like a strangled man’s—just as they be now.”

“‘Tis a pity that playing the flute should make a man look such a scarecrow,” observed Mr. Mark Clark, with additional criticism of Gabriel’s countenance, the latter person jerking out, with the ghastly grimace required by the instrument, the chorus of “Dame Durden:”—

 

‘Twas Moll’ and Bet’, and Doll’ and Kate’,

And Dor’-othy Drag’-gle Tail’.

“I hope you don’t mind that young man’s bad manners in naming your features?” whispered Joseph to Gabriel.

“Not at all,” said Mr. Oak.

“For by nature ye be a very handsome man, shepherd,” continued Joseph Poorgrass, with winning sauvity.

“Ay, that ye be, shepard,” said the company.

“Thank you very much,” said Oak, in the modest tone good manners demanded, thinking, however, that he would never let Bathsheba see him playing the flute; in this resolve showing a discretion equal to that related to its sagacious inventress, the divine Minerva herself.

“Ah, when I and my wife were married at Norcombe Church,” said the old maltster, not pleased at finding himself left out of the subject, “we were called the handsomest couple in the neighbourhood—everybody said so.”

“Danged if ye bain’t altered now, malter,” said a voice with the vigour natural to the enunciation of a remarkably evident truism. It came from the old man in the background, whose offensiveness and spiteful ways were barely atoned for by the occasional chuckle he contributed to general laughs.

“O no, no,” said Gabriel.

“Don’t ye play no more shepherd” said Susan Tall’s husband, the young married man who had spoken once before. “I must be moving and when there’s tunes going on I seem as if hung in wires. If I thought after I’d left that music was still playing, and I not there, I should be quite melancholy-like.”

“What’s yer hurry then, Laban?” inquired Coggan. “You used to bide as late as the latest.”

“Well, ye see, neighbours, I was lately married to a woman, and she’s my vocation now, and so ye see—” The young man halted lamely.

“New Lords new laws, as the saying is, I suppose,” remarked Coggan.

“Ay, ‘a b’lieve—ha, ha!” said Susan Tall’s husband, in a tone intended to imply his habitual reception of jokes without minding them at all. The young man then wished them good-night and withdrew.

Henery Fray was the first to follow. Then Gabriel arose and went off with Jan Coggan, who had offered him a lodging. A few minutes later, when the remaining ones were on their legs and about to depart, Fray came back again in a hurry. Flourishing his finger ominously he threw a gaze teeming with tidings just where his eye alighted by accident, which happened to be in Joseph Poorgrass’s face.

“O—what’s the matter, what’s the matter, Henery?” said Joseph, starting back.

“What’s a-brewing, Henrey?” asked Jacob and Mark Clark.

“Baily Pennyways—Baily Pennyways—I said so; yes, I said so!”

“What, found out stealing anything?”

“Stealing it is. The news is, that after Miss Everdene got home she went out again to see all was safe, as she usually do, and coming in found Baily Pennyways creeping down the granary steps with half a a bushel of barley. She fleed at him like a cat—never such a tomboy as she is—of course I speak with closed doors?”

“You do—you do, Henery.”

“She fleed at him, and, to cut a long story short, he owned to having carried off five sack altogether, upon her promising not to persecute him. Well, he’s turned out neck and crop, and my question is, who’s going to be baily now?”

The question was such a profound one that Henery was obliged to drink there and then from the large cup till the bottom was distinctly visible inside. Before he had replaced it on the table, in came the young man, Susan Tall’s husband, in a still greater hurry.

“Have ye heard the news that’s all over parish?”

“About Baily Pennyways?”

“But besides that?”

“No—not a morsel of it!” they replied, looking into the very midst of Laban Tall as if to meet his words half-way down his throat.

“What a night of horrors!” murmured Joseph Poorgrass, waving his hands spasmodically. “I’ve had the news-bell ringing in my left ear quite bad enough for a murder, and I’ve seen a magpie all alone!”

“Fanny Robin—Miss Everdene’s youngest servant—can’t be found. They’ve been wanting to lock up the door these two hours, but she isn’t come in. And they don’t know what to do about going to bed for fear of locking her out. They wouldn’t be so concerned if she hadn’t been noticed in such low spirits these last few days, and Maryann d’ think the beginning of a crowner’s inquest has happened to the poor girl.”

“Oh—’tis burned—’tis burned!” came from Joseph Poorgrass’s dry lips.

“No—’tis drowned!” said Tall.

“Or ’tis her father’s razor!” suggested Billy Smallbury, with a vivid sense of detail.

“Well—Miss Everdene wants to speak to one or two of us before we go to bed. What with this trouble about the baily, and now about the girl, mis’ess is almost wild.”

They all hastened up the lane to the farmhouse, excepting the old maltster, whom neither news, fire, rain, nor thunder could draw from his hole. There, as the others’ footsteps died away he sat down again and continued gazing as usual into the furnace with his red, bleared eyes.

From the bedroom window above their heads Bathsheba’s head and shoulders, robed in mystic white, were dimly seen extended into the air.

“Are any of my men among you?” she said anxiously.

“Yes, ma’am, several,” said Susan Tall’s husband.

“To-morrow morning I wish two or three of you to make inquiries in the villages round if they have seen such a person as Fanny Robin. Do it quietly; there is no reason for alarm as yet. She must have left whilst we were all at the fire.”

“I beg yer pardon, but had she any young man courting her in the parish, ma’am?” asked Jacob Smallbury.

“I don’t know,” said Bathsheba.

“I’ve never heard of any such thing, ma’am,” said two or three.

“It is hardly likely, either,” continued Bathsheba. “For any lover of hers might have come to the house if he had been a respectable lad. The most mysterious matter connected with her absence—indeed, the only thing which gives me serious alarm—is that she was seen to go out of the house by Maryann with only her indoor working gown on—not even a bonnet.”

“And you mean, ma’am, excusing my words, that a young woman would hardly go to see her young man without dressing up,” said Jacob, turning his mental vision upon past experiences. “That’s true—she would not, ma’am.”

“She had, I think, a bundle, though I couldn’t see very well,” said a female voice from another window, which seemed that of Maryann. “But she had no young man about here. Hers lives in Casterbridge, and I believe he’s a soldier.”

“Do you know his name?” Bathsheba said.

“No, mistress; she was very close about it.”

“Perhaps I might be able to find out if I went to Casterbridge barracks,” said William Smallbury.

“Very well; if she doesn’t return to-morrow, mind you go there and try to discover which man it is, and see him. I feel more responsible than I should if she had had any friends or relations alive. I do hope she has come to no harm through a man of that kind… And then there’s this disgraceful affair of the bailiff—but I can’t speak of him now.”

Bathsheba had so many reasons for uneasiness that it seemed she did not think it worth while to dwell upon any particular one. “Do as I told you, then,” she said in conclusion, closing the casement.

“Ay, ay, mistress; we will,” they replied, and moved away.

That night at Coggan’s, Gabriel Oak, beneath the screen of closed eyelids, was busy with fancies, and full of movement, like a river flowing rapidly under its ice. Night had always been the time at which he saw Bathsheba most vividly, and through the slow hours of shadow he tenderly regarded her image now. It is rarely that the pleasures of the imagination will compensate for the pain of sleeplessness, but they possibly did with Oak to-night, for the delight of merely seeing her effaced for the time his perception of the great difference between seeing and possessing.

He also thought of plans for fetching his few utensils and books from Norcombe. The Young Man’s Best Companion, The Farrier’s Sure Guide, The Veterinary Surgeon, Paradise Lost, The Pilgrim’s Progress, Robinson Crusoe, Ash’s Dictionary, and Walkingame’s Arithmetic, constituted his library; and though a limited series, it was one from which he had acquired more sound information by diligent perusal than many a man of opportunities has done from a furlong of laden shelves.

 

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