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from Stories By English Authors: England





The other man, nothing loath, raised the mug to his lips, and drank
on and on and on, till a curious blueness overspread the countenance
of the shepherd's wife, who had regarded with no little surprise
the first stranger's free offer to the second of what did not belong
to him to dispense.

"I knew it!" said the toper to the shepherd, with much satisfaction.
"When I walked up your garden afore coming in, and saw the hives
all of a row, I said to myself, 'Where there's bees there's honey,
and where there's honey there's mead.' But mead of such a truly
comfortable sort as this I really didn't expect to meet in my
older days." He took yet another pull at the mug, till it assumed
an ominous horizontality.

"Glad you enjoy it!" said the shepherd, warmly.

"It is goodish mead," assented Mrs. Fennel, with an absence of
enthusiasm which seemed to say that it was possible to buy praise
for one's cellar at too heavy a price. "It is trouble enough to
make--and really I hardly think we shall make any more. For honey
sells well, and we can make shift with a drop o' small mead and
metheglin for common use from the comb washings."

"Oh, but you'll never have the heart!" reproachfully cried the
stranger in cinder gray, after taking up the mug a third time and
setting it down empty. "I love mead, when 't is old like this, as
I love to go to church o' Sundays or to relieve the needy any day
of the week."

"Ha, ha, ha!" said the man in the chimney-corner, who, in spite of
the taciturnity induced by the pipe of tobacco, could not or would
not refrain from this slight testimony to his comrade's humour.

Now the old mead of those days, brewed of the purest first-year or
maiden honey, four pounds to gallon,--with its due complement of
whites of eggs, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, mace, rosemary, yeast, and
processes of working, bottling, and cellaring,--tasted remarkably
strong; but it did not taste so strong as it actually was. Hence,
presently the stranger in cinder gray at the table, moved by its
creeping influence, unbuttoned his waistcoat, threw himself back in
his chair, spread his legs, and made his presence felt in various
ways.

"Well, well, as I say," he resumed, "I am going to Casterbridge,
and to Casterbridge I must go. I should have been almost there by
this time; but the rain drove me in to ye, and I'm not sorry for
it."

"You don't live in Casterbridge?" said the shepherd.

"Not as yet, though I shortly mean to move there."

"Going to set up in trade, perhaps?"

"No, no," said the shepherd's wife; "it is easy to see that the
gentleman is rich and don't want to work at anything."

The cinder-gray stranger paused, as if to consider whether he
would accept that definition of himself. He presently rejected it
by answering, "Rich is not quite the word for me, dame. I do work,
and I must work. And even if I only get to Casterbridge by midnight
I must begin work there at eight to-morrow morning. Yes, het or
wet, blow or snow, famine or sword, my day's work to-morrow must
be done."

"Poor man! Then, in spite o' seeming, you be worse off than we?"
replied the shepherd's wife.

"'Tis the nature of my trade, men and maidens. 'Tis the nature
of my trade more than my poverty. But really and truly, I must up
and off, or I sha'n't get a lodging in the town."

However, the speaker did not move, and directly added,

"There's time for one more draught of friendship before I go, and
I'd perform it at once if the mug were not dry."

"Here's a mug o' small," said Mrs. Fennel. "Small, we call it,
though, to be sure, 'tis only the first wash o' the combs."

"No," said the stranger, disdainfully; "I won't spoil your first
kindness by partaking o' your second.

"Certainly not," broke in Fennel. "We don't increase and multiply
every day, and I'll fill the mug again." He went away to the dark
place under the stairs where the barrel stood. The shepherdess
followed him.

"Why should you do this?" she said, reproachfully, as soon as they
were alone. "He's emptied it once, though it held enough for ten
people; and now he's not contented wi' the small, but must needs
call for more o' the strong! And a stranger unbeknown to any of
us! For my part, I don't like the look o' the man at all."

"But he's in the house, my honey, and 'tis a wet night, and a
christening. Daze it, what's a cup of mead more or less? There'll
be plenty more next bee-burning."

"Very well--this time, then," she answered, looking wistfully at
the barrel. "But what is the man's calling, and where is he one
of, that he should come in and join us like this?"

"I don't know. I'll ask him again."

The catastrophe of having the mug drained dry at one pull by the
stranger in cinder gray was effectually guarded against this time
by Mrs. Fennel. She poured out his allowance in a small cup, keeping
the large one at a discreet distance from him. When he had tossed
off his portion the shepherd renewed his inquiry about the stranger's
occupation.

The latter did not immediately reply, and the man in the
chimney-corner, with sudden demonstrativeness, said, "Anybody may
know my trade --I'm a wheelwright."

"A very good trade for these parts," said the shepherd.

"And anybody may know mine-if they've the sense to find it out,"
said the stranger in cinder gray.

"You may generally tell what a man is by his claws," observed the
hedge-carpenter, looking at his hands. "My fingers be as full of
thorns as an old pincushion is of pins."

The hands of the man in the chimney-corner instinctively sought
the shade, and he gazed into the fire as he resumed his pipe. The
man at the table took up the hedge-carpenter's remark, and added
smartly, "True; but the oddity of my trade is that, instead of
setting a mark upon me, it sets a mark upon my customers."

No observation being offered by anybody in elucidation of this
enigma, the shepherd's wife once more called for a song. The same
obstacles presented themselves as at the former time: one had
no voice, another had forgotten the first verse. The stranger at
the table, whose soul had now risen to a good working temperature,
relieved the difficulty by exclaiming that, to start the company,
he would sing himself. Thrusting one thumb into the armhole of
his waistcoat, he waved the other hand in the air, and, with an
extemporising gaze at the shining sheep-crooks above the mantelpiece,
began:

"Oh, my trade it is the rarest one,
Simple shepherds all,
My trade is a sight to see;
For my customers I tie, and take them up on high,
And waft 'em to a far countree."

The room was silent when he had finished the verse, with one exception,
that of the man in the chimney-corner, who, at the singer's word,
"Chorus!" joined him in a deep bass voice of musical relish:

"And waft 'em to a far countree."

Oliver Giles, John Pitcher, the dairyman, the parish clerk, the
engaged man of fifty, the row of young women against the wall,
seemed lost in thought not of the gayest kind. The shepherd looked
meditatively on the ground; the shepherdess gazed keenly at the
singer, and with some suspicion; she was doubting whether this
stranger was merely singing an old song from recollection, or
composing one there and then for the occasion. All were as perplexed
at the obscure revelation as the guests at Belshazzar's feast,
except the man in the chimney-corner, who quietly said, "Second
verse, stranger," and smoked on.

The singer thoroughly moistened himself from his lips inward, and
went on with the next stanza, as requested:

"My tools are but common ones,
Simple shepherds all,
My tools are no sight to see:
A little hempen string, and a post whereon to swing,
Are implements enough for me."

Shepherd Fennel glanced round. There was no longer any doubt that
the stranger was answering his question rhythmically. The guests
one and all started back with surpressed exclamations. The young
woman engaged to the man of fifty fainted half-way, and would have
proceeded, but, finding him wanting in alacrity for catching her,
she sat down trembling.

"Oh, he's the--" whispered the people in the background, mentioning
the name of an ominous public officer. "He's come to do it. 'T is
to be at Casterbridge gaol to-morrow--the man for sheep-stealing--the
poor clock-maker we heard of, who used to live away at Anglebury and
had no work to do--Timothy Sommers, whose family were a-starving,
and so he went out of Anglebury by the highroad, and took a sheep
in open daylight, defying the farmer and the farmer's wife and the
farmer's man and every man Jack among 'em. He" (and they nodded
toward the stranger of the terrible trade) "is come from up the
country to do it because there's not enough to do in his own county
town, and he's got the place here, now our own county man's dead;
he's going to live in the same cottage under the prison wall."

The stranger in cinder gray took no notice of this whispered string
of observations, but again wetted his lips. Seeing that his friend
in the chimney-corner was the only one who reciprocated his joviality
in any way, he held out his cup toward that appreciative comrade,
who also held out his own. They clinked together, the eyes of the
rest of the room hanging upon the singer's actions. He parted his
lips for the third verse, but at that moment another knock was
audible upon the door. This time the knock was faint and hesitating.

The company seemed scared; the shepherd looked with consternation
toward the entrance, and it was with some effort that he resisted
his alarmed wife's deprecatory glance, and uttered for the third
time the welcoming words, "Walk in!"

The door was gently opened, and another man stood upon the mat.
He, like those who had preceded him, was a stranger. This time it
was a short, small personage, of fair complexion, and dressed in
a decent suit of dark clothes.

"Can you tell me the way to--" he began; when, gazing round the
room to observe the nature of the company among whom he had fallen,
his eyes lighted on the stranger in cinder gray. It was just at
the instant when the latter, who had thrown his mind into his song
with such a will that he scarcely heeded the interruption, silenced
all whispers and inquiries by bursting into his third verse:

"To-morrow is my working-day,
Simple shepherds all,
To-morrow is a working-day for me;
For the farmer's sheep is slain, and the lad who did it ta'en,
And on his soul may God ha' merc-y!"

The stranger in the chimney-corner, waving cup with the singer so
heartily that his mead splashed over on the hearth, repeated in
his bass voice as before:

"And on his soul may God ha' mercy!"

All this time the third stranger had been standing in the doorway.
Finding now that he did not come forward or go on speaking, the
guests particularly regarded him. They noticed, to their surprise,
that he stood before them the picture of abject terror-his knees
trembling, his hand shaking so violently that the door-latch, by
which he supported himself, rattled audibly; his white lips were
parted, and his eyes fixed on the merry officer of justice in the
middle of the room. A moment more, and he had turned, closed the
door, and fled.

"What a man can it be?" said the shepherd.

The rest, between the awfulness of their late discovery and the odd
conduct of this third visitor, looked as if they knew not what to
think, and said nothing. Instinctively they withdrew farther and
farther from the grim gentleman in their midst, whom some of them
seemed to take for the prince of darkness himself, till they formed
a remote circle, an empty space of floor being left between them
and him--

"Circulus, cujus centrum diabolus."

The room was so silent--though there were more than twenty people
in it--that nothing could be heard but the patter of the rain against
the window-shutters, accompanied by the occasional hiss of a stray
drop that fell down the chimney into the fire, and the steady
puffing of the man in the corner, who had now resumed his pipe of
long clay.

The stillness was unexpectedly broken. The distant sound of a gun
reverberated through the air, apparently from the direction of the
county town.

"Be jiggered!" cried the stranger who had sung the song, jumping
up.

"What does that mean?" asked several.

"A prisoner escaped from the gaol--that 's what it means."

All listened. The sound was repeated, and none of them spoke but
the man in the chimney-corner, who said quietly, "I've often been
told that in this county they fire a gun at such times, but I never
heard it till now."

"I wonder if it is _my_ man?" murmured personage in cinder
gray.

"Surely it is!" said the shepherd, involuntarily. "And surely
we've seen him! That little man who looked in at the door by now,
and quivered like a leaf when he seed ye and heard your song."

"His teeth chattered, and the breath went out of his body," said
the dairyman.

"And his heart seemed to sink within him like a stone," said Oliver
Giles.

"And he bolted as if he'd been shot at," said the hedge-carpenter.

"True--his teeth chattered, and his heart seemed to sink, and he
bolted as if he'd been shot at," slowly summed up the man in the
chimney-corner.

"I didn't notice it," remarked the grim songster.

"We were all a-wondering what made him run off in such a fright,"
faltered one of the women against the wall, "and now't is explained."

The firing of the alarm-gun went on at intervals, low and sullenly,
and their suspicions became a certainty. The sinister gentleman in
cinder gray roused himself. "Is there a constable here?" he asked,
in thick tones. "If so, let him step forward."

The engaged man of fifty stepped quavering out of the corner, his
betrothed beginning to sob on the back of the chair.

"You are a sworn constable?"

"I be, sir."

"Then pursue the criminal at once, with assistance, and bring him
back here. He can't have gone far."

"I will, sir, I will--when I've got my staff. I'll home and get
it, and come sharp here, and start in a body."

"Staff! never mind your staff--the man'll be gone!"

"But I can't do nothing without my staff--can I, William, and John,
and Charles Jake? No; for there's the king's royal crown a-painted
on en in yaller and gold, and the lion and the unicorn, so as when
I raise en up and hit my prisoner't is made a lawful blow thereby.
I wouldn't 'tempt to take up a man without my staff--no, not I. If
I hadn't the law to gie me courage, why, instead o' my taking him
up he might take up me!"

"Now, I'm a king's man myself, and can give you authority enough
for this," said the formidable person in cinder gray. "Now then,
all of ye, be ready. Have ye any lanterns?"

"Yes; have ye any lanterns? I demand it," said the constable.

"And the rest of you able-bodied--"

"Able-bodied men--yes--the rest of ye," said the constable.

"Have you some good stout staves and pitchforks--"

"Staves and pitchforks--in the name o' the law. And take 'em in
yer hands and go in quest, and do as we in authority tell ye."

Thus aroused, the men prepared to give chase. The evidence
was, indeed, though circumstantial, so convincing that but little
argument was needed to show the shepherd's guests that, after what
they had seen, it would look very much like connivance if they did
not instantly pursue the unhappy third stranger, who could not as
yet have gone more than a few hundred yards over such uneven country.

A shepherd is always well provided with lanterns; and, lighting
these hastily, and with hurdle-staves in their hands, they poured
out of the door, taking a direction along the crest of the hill,
away from the town, the rain having fortunately a little abated.

Disturbed by the noise, or possibly by unpleasant dreams of her
baptism, the child who had been christened began to cry heartbrokenly
in the room overhead. These notes of grief came down through the
chinks of the floor to the ears of the women below, who jumped up,
one by one, and seemed glad of the excuse to ascend and comfort
the baby; for the incidents of the last half-hour greatly oppressed
them. Thus in the space of two or three minutes the room on the
ground floor was deserted quite.

But it was not for long. Hardly had the sound of footsteps died
away when a man returned round the corner of the house from the
direction the pursuers had taken. Peeping in at the door, and seeing
nobody there, he entered leisurely. It was the stranger of the
chimney-corner, who had gone out with the rest. The motive of his
return was shown by his helping himself to a cut piece of skimmer-cake
that lay on a ledge beside where he had sat, and which he had
apparently forgotten to take with him. He also poured out half a
cup more mead from the quantity that remained, ravenously eating
and drinking these as he stood. He had not finished when another
figure came in just as quietly--the stranger in cinder gray.

"Oh, you here?" said the latter, smiling. "I thought you had gone
to help in the capture." And this speaker also revealed the object
of his return by looking solicitously round for the fascinating
mug of old mead.

"And I thought you had gone," said the other, continuing his
skimmer-cake with some effort.

"Well, on second thoughts, I felt there were enough without me,"
said the first, confidentially, "and such a night as it is, too.
Besides, 't is the business o' the government to take care of its
criminals, not mine."

"True, so it is; and I felt as you did--that were enough without
me."

"I don't want to break my limbs running over the humps and hollows
of this wild country."

"Nor I, either, between you and me."

"These shepherd people are used to it--simpleminded souls, you
know, stirred up to anything a moment. They'll have him ready for
me before the morning, and no trouble to me at all."

"They'll have him, and we shall have saved ourselves all labour in
the matter."

"True, true. Well, my way is to Casterbridge, and't is as much as
my legs will do to take me that far. Going the same way?"

"No, I am sorry to' say. I have to get home over there" (he nodded
indefinitely to the right), "and I feel as you do--that it is quite
enough for my legs to do before bedtime."

The other had by this time finished the mead in the mug, after
which, shaking hands at the door and wishing each other well, they
went their several ways.

In the meantime the company of pursuers had reached the end of the
hog's-back elevation which dominated this part of the coomb. They
had decided on no particular plan of action, and, finding that
the man of the baleful trade was no longer in their company, they
seemed quite unable to form any such plan now. They descended in all
directions down the hill, and straightway several of the parties
fell into the snare set by nature for all misguided midnight
ramblers over the lower cretaceous formation. The "lynchets," or
flint slopes, which belted the escarpment at intervals of a dozen
yards, took the less cautious ones unawares, and, losing their
footing on the rubbly steep, they slid sharply downward, the lanterns
rolling from their hands to the bottom, and there lying on their
sides till the horn was scorched through.

When they had again gathered themselves together, the shepherd, as
the man who knew the country best, took the lead, and guided them
round these treacherous inclines. The lanterns, which seemed rather
to dazzle their eyes and warn the fugitive than to assist them in
the exploration, were extinguished, due silence was observed, and
in this more rational order they plunged into the vale. It was
a grassy, briery, moist channel, affording some shelter to any
person who had sought it; but the party perambulated it in vain, and
ascended on the other side. Here they wandered apart, and after an
interval closed together again to report progress. At the second
time of closing in they found themselves near a lonely oak, the single
tree on this part of the upland, probably sown there by a passing
bird some hundred years before; and here, standing a little to one
side of the trunk, as motionless as the trunk itself, appeared the
man they were in quest of, his outline being well defined against
the sky beyond. The band noiselessly drew up and faced him.

"Your money or your life!" said the constable, sternly, to the
still figure.

"No, no," whispered John Pitcher. "'Tisn't our side ought to say
that. That's the doctrine of vagabonds like him, and we be on the
side of the law."

"Well, well," replied the constable, impatiently, "I must say something,
mustn't I? And if you had all the weight o' this undertaking upon
your mind perhaps you'd say the wrong thing too. Prisoner at the
bar, surrender, in the name of the Fath--the crown, I mane!"

The man under the tree seemed now to notice them for the first
time, and, giving them no opportunity whatever for exhibiting
their courage, he strolled slowly toward them. He was, indeed, the
little man, the third stranger, but his trepidation had in a great
measure gone.

"Well, travellers," he said, "did I hear ye speak to me?"

"You did; you've got to come and be our prisoner at once," said the
constable. "We arrest ye on the charge of not biding in Casterbridge
gaol in a decent, proper manner, to be hung to-morrow morning.
Neighbours, do your duty, and seize the culpet!"

On hearing the charge, the man seemed enlightened, and, saying
not another word, resigned himself with preternatural civility to
the search-party, who, with their staves in their hands, surrounded
him on all sides, and marched him back toward the shepherd's cottage.

It was eleven o'clock by the time they arrived. The light shining
from the open door, a sound of men's voices within, proclaimed
to them, as they approached the house, that some new events had
arisen in their absence. On entering they discovered the shepherd's
living-room to be invaded by officers from Casterbridge gaol and
a well-known magistrate who lived at the nearest country-seat,
intelligence of the escape having become generally circulated.

"Gentlemen," said the constable, "I have brought back your man--not
without risk and danger, but every one must do his duty. He is
inside this circle of able-bodied persons, who have lent me useful
aid, considering their ignorance of crown work. Men, bring forward
your prisoner." And the third stranger was led to the light.

"Who is this?" said one of the officials.

"The man," said the constable.

"Certainly not," said the other turnkey, and the first corroborated
his statement.

"But how can it be otherwise?" asked the constable. "Or why was he
so terrified at sight o' the singing instrument of the law?" Here
he related the strange behaviour of the third stranger on entering
the house.

"Can't understand it," said the officer, coolly. All I know is
that it is not the condemned man. He's quite a different character
from this one; a gauntish fellow, with dark hair and eyes, rather
good-looking, and with a musical bass voice that, if you heard it
once, you'd never mistake as long as you lived."

"Why, souls,'t was the man in the chimney-corner!"

"Hey--what?" said the magistrate, coming forward after inquiring
particulars from the shepherd in the background. "Haven't you got
the man after all?"

"Well, sir," said the constable, "he's the man we were in search
of, that's true; and yet he's not the man we were in search of.
For the man we were in search of was not the man we wanted, sir,
if you understand my every-day way; for 't was the man in the
chimney-corner."

"A pretty kettle of fish altogether!" said the magistiate. "You
had better start for the other man at once."

The prisoner now spoke for the first time. The mention of the man
in the chimney-corner seemed to have moved him as nothing else could
do. "Sir," he said, stepping forward to the magistrate, "take no
more trouble about me. The time is come when I may as well speak.
I have done nothing; my crime is that the condemned man is my brother.
Early this afternoon I left home at Anglebury to tramp it all the
way to Casterbridge gaol to bid him farewell. I was benighted, and
called here to rest and ask the way. When I opened the door I saw
before me the very man, my brother, that I thought to see in the
condemned cell at Casterbridge. He was in this chimney-corner;
and, jammed close to him, so that he could not have got out if he
had tried, was the executioner who'd come to take his life, singing
a song about it, and not knowing that it was his victim who was
close by, joining in to save appearances. My brother looked a
glance of agony at me, and I knew he meant, 'Don't reveal what you
see; my life depends on it.' I was so terror-struck that I could
hardly stand, and, not knowing what I did, I turned and hurried
away."

The narrator's manner and tone had the stamp of truth, and his
story made a great impression on around.

"And do you know where your brother is at the present time?" asked
the magistrate.

"I do not. I have never seen him since I closed this door."

"I can testify to that, for we've been between ye ever since," said
the constable.

Where does he think to fly to? What is his occupation?"

"He's a watch- and clock-maker, sir."

"'A said 'a was a wheelwright--a wicked rogue," said the constable.

"The wheels o' clocks and watches he meant, no doubt," said Shepherd
Fennel. "I thought his hands were palish for's trade."

"Well, it appears to me that nothing can be gained by retaining
this poor man in custody," the magistrate; "your business lies with
the other unquestionably."

And so the little man was released offhand; but he looked nothing
the less sad on that account, it being beyond the power of magistrate
or constable to rase out the written troubles in his brain, for
they concerned another, whom he regarded with more solicitude than
himself. When this was done, and the man had gone his way, the
night was found to be so far advanced that it was deemed useless
to renew the search before the next morning.

Next day, accordingly, the quest for the clever sheep-stealer became
general and keen--to all appearance, at least. But the intended
punishment was cruelly disproportioned to the transgression, and
the sympathy of a great many country folk in that district was
strongly on the side of the fugitive. Moreover, his marvellous
coolness and daring under the unprecedented circumstances of the
shepherd's party won their admiration. So that it may be questioned
if all those who ostensibly made themselves so busy in exploring
woods and fields and lanes were quite so thorough when it came to
the private examination of their own lofts and outhouses. Stories
were afloat of a mysterious figure being occasionally seen in some
old overgrown trackway or other, remote from turnpike roads; but
when a search was instituted in any of these suspected quarters
nobody was found. Thus the days and weeks passed without tidings.

In brief, the bass-voiced man of the chimney-corner was never
recaptured. Some said that he went across the sea, others that he
did not, but buried himself in the depths of a populous city.

At any rate, the gentleman in cinder gray never did his morning's
work at Casterbridge, nor met anywhere at all for business purposes
the comrade with whom he had passed an hour of relaxation in the
lonely house on the coomb.

The grass has long been green on the graves of Shepherd Fennel and
his frugal wife; the guests who made up the christening-party have
mainly followed their entertainers to the tomb; the baby in whose
honour they all had met is a matron in the sear and yellow leaf;
but the arrival of the three strangers at the shepherd's that night,
and the details connected therewith, is a story as well known as
ever in the country about Higher Crowstairs.





Next: MR. LISMORE AND THE WIDOW

Previous: THE THREE STRANGERS



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