Among the few features of agricultural England
which retain an appearance but little modified by the
lapse of centuries, may be reckoned the high, grassy
and furzy downs, coombs, or ewe-leases, as they are
indifferently called, that fill a large area of certain counties
in the south and south-west. If any mark of human
occupation is met with hereon, it usually takes the form
of the solitary cottage of some shepherd.
Fifty years ago such a lonely cottage stood on such
a down, and may possibly be standing there now. In
spite of its loneliness, however, the spot, by actual
measurement, was not more than five miles from a
county-town. Yet that affected it little. Five miles of
irregular upland, during the long inimical seasons, with
their sleets, snows, rains, and mists, afford withdrawing
space enough to isolate a Timon or a Nebuchadnezzar;
much less, in fair weather, to please that less repellent
tribe, the poets, philosophers, artists, and others who
"conceive and meditate of pleasant things."
Some old earthen camp or barrow, some clump of
trees, at least some starved fragment of ancient hedge
is usually taken advantage of in the erection of these
forlorn dwellings. But, in the present case, such a kind of
shelter had been disregarded. Higher Crowstairs, as
the house was called, stood quite detached and
undefended. The only reason for its precise situation
seemed to be the crossing of two footpaths at right
angles hard by, which may have crossed there and thus
for a good five hundred years. Hence the house was
exposed to the elements on all sides. But, though the
wind up here blew unmistakably when it did blow,
and the rain hit hard whenever it fell, the various
weathers of the winter season were not quite so
formidable on the coomb as they were imagined to be by
dwellers on low ground. The raw rimes were not so
pernicious as in the hollows, and the frosts were scarcely
so severe. When the shepherd and his family who
tenanted the house were pitied for their sufferings from
the exposure, they said that upon the whole they were
less inconvenienced by "wuzzes and flames" (hoarses
and phlegms) than when they had lived by the stream
of a snug neighbouring valley.
The night of March 28, 182-, was precisely one of
the nights that were wont to call forth these expressions
of commiseration. The level rainstorm smote walls,
slopes, and hedges like the clothyard shafts of Senlac
and Crecy. Such sheep and outdoor animals as had
no shelter stood with their buttocks to the winds; while
the tails of little birds trying to roost on some scraggy
thorn were blown inside-out like umbrellas. The
gable-end of the cottage was stained with wet, and
the eavesdroppings flapped against the wall. Yet
never was commiseration for the shepherd more misplaced.
For that cheerful rustic was entertaining a
large party in glorification of the christening of his
The guests had arrived before the rain began to
fall, and they were all now assembled in the chief or living
room of the dwelling. A glance into the apartment at
eight o'clock on this eventful evening would have
resulted in the opinion that it was as cosy and comfortable
a nook as could be wished for in boisterous weather.
The calling of its inhabitant was proclaimed by a
number of highly-polished sheep-crooks without stems
that were hung ornamentally over the fireplace, the curl
of each shining crook varying from the antiquated type
engraved in the patriarchal pictures of old family Bibles
to the most approved fashion of the last local sheep-fair.
The room was lighted by half-a-dozen candles, having
wicks only a trifle smaller than the grease which
enveloped them, in candlesticks that were never used
but at high-days, holy-days, and family feasts. The
lights were scattered about the room, two of them
standing on the chimney-piece. This position of candles
was in itself significant. Candles on the chimney-piece
always meant a party.
On the hearth, in front of a back-brand to give
substance, blazed a fire of thorns, that crackled "like
the laughter of the fool."
Nineteen persons were gathered here. Of these,
five women, wearing gowns of various bright hues, sat
in chairs along the wall; girls shy and not shy filled
the window-bench; four men, including Charley Jake
the hedge-carpenter, Elijah New the parish-clerk, and
John Pitcher, a neighbouring dairyman, the shepherd's
father-in-law, lolled in the settle; a young man and
maid, who were blushing over tentative pourparlers on
a life-companionship, sat beneath the corner-cupboard;
and an elderly engaged man of fifty or upward moved
restlessly about from spots where his betrothed was
not to the spot where she was. Enjoyment was pretty
general, and so much the more prevailed in being
unhampered by conventional restrictions. Absolute
confidence in each other's good opinion begat perfect
ease, while the finishing stroke of manner, amounting to
a truly princely serenity, was lent to the majority by the
absence of any expression or trait denoting that they
wished to get on in the world, enlarge their minds, or
do any eclipsing thing whatever - which nowadays so
generally nips the bloom and bonhomie of all except the
two extremes of the social scale.
Shepherd Fennel had married well, his wife being
a dairyman's daughter from a vale at a distance, who
brought fifty guineas in her pocket - and kept them
there, till they should be required for ministering to
the needs of a coming family. This frugal woman
had been somewhat exercised as to the character that
should be given to the gathering. A sit-still party had
its advantages; but an undisturbed position of ease in
chairs and settles was apt to lead on the men to such
an unconscionable deal of toping that they would
sometimes fairly drink the house dry. A dancing-party
was the alternative; but this, while avoiding the
foregoing objection on the score of good drink, had a
counterbalancing disadvantage in the matter of good
victuals, the ravenous appetites engendered by the
exercise causing immense havoc in the buttery. Shepherdess
Fennel fell back upon the intermediate plan of mingling
short dances with short periods of talk and singing, so
as to hinder any ungovernable rage in either. But this
scheme was entirely confined to her own gentle mind:
the shepherd himself was in the mood to exhibit the
most reckless phases of hospitality.
The fiddler was a boy of those parts, about twelve
years of age, who had a wonderful dexterity in jigs and
reels, though his fingers were so small and short as to
necessitate a constant shifting for the high notes, from
which he scrambled back to the first position with
sounds not of unmixed purity of tone. At seven the
shrill tweedle-dee of this youngster had begun,
accompanied by a booming ground-bass from Elijah New,
the parish-clerk, who had thoughtfully brought with him
his favourite musical instrument, the serpent. Dancing
was instantaneous, Mrs. Fennel privately enjoining the
players on no account to let the dance exceed the length
of a quarter of an hour.
But Elijah and the boy, in the excitement of their
position, quite forgot the injunction. Moreover, Oliver
Giles, a man of seventeen, one of the dancers, who was
enamoured of his partner, a fair girl of thirty-three rolling
years, had recklessly handed a new crown-piece to the
musicians, as a bribe to keep going as long as they had
muscle and wind. Mrs. Fennel, seeing the steam begin
to generate on the countenances of her guests, crossed
over and touched the fiddler's elbow and put her hand
on the serpent's mouth. But they took no notice, and
fearing she might lose her character of genial hostess if
she were to interfere too markedly, she retired and sat
down helpless. And so the dance whizzed on with
cumulative fury, the performers moving in their planet-like
courses, direct and retrograde, from apogee to perigee,
till the hand of the well-kicked clock at the bottom
of the room had travelled over the circumference of
While these cheerful events were in course of
enactment within Fennel's pastoral dwelling, an incident
having considerable bearing on the party had occurred
in the gloomy night without. Mrs. Fennel's concern
about the growing fierceness of the dance corresponded
in point of time with the ascent of a human figure to
the solitary hill of Higher Crowstairs from the direction
of the distant town. This personage strode on through
the rain without a pause, following the little-worn path
which, further on in its course, skirted the shepherd's
It was nearly the time of full moon, and on this
account, though the sky was lined with a uniform sheet
of dripping cloud, ordinary objects out of doors were
readily visible. The sad wan light revealed the lonely
pedestrian to be a man of supple frame; his gait
suggested that he had somewhat passed the period of
perfect and instinctive agility, though not so far as
to be otherwise than rapid of motion when occasion
required. At a rough guess, he might have been about
forty years of age. He appeared tall, but a recruiting
sergeant, or other person accustomed to the judging of
men's heights by the eye, would have discerned that
this was chiefly owing to his gauntness, and that he was
not more than five-feet-eight or nine.
Notwithstanding the regularity of his tread, there
was caution in it, as in that of one who mentally feels his
way; and despite the fact that it was not a black coat
nor a dark garment of any sort that he wore, there was
something about him which suggested that he naturally
belonged to the black-coated tribes of men. His clothes
were of fustian, and his boots hobnailed, yet in his
progress he showed not the mud-accustomed bearing of
hobnailed and fustianed peasantry.
By the time that he had arrived abreast of the
shepherd's premises the rain came down, or rather
came along, with yet more determined violence. The
outskirts of the little settlement partially broke the force
of wind and rain, and this induced him to stand still.
The most salient of the shepherd's domestic erections
was an empty sty at the forward corner of his hedgeless
garden, for in these latitudes the principle of masking
the homelier features of your establishment by a
conventional frontage was unknown. The traveller's eye
was attracted to this small building by the pallid shine
of the wet slates that covered it. He turned aside,
and, finding it empty, stood under the pent-roof for
While he stood, the boom of the serpent within the
adjacent house, and the lesser strains of the fiddler,
reached the spot as an accompaniment to the surging
hiss of the flying rain on the sod, its louder beating on
the cabbage-leaves of the garden, on the eight or ten
beehives just discernible by the path, and its dripping
from the eaves into a row of buckets and pans that
had been placed under the walls of the cottage. For
at Higher Crowstairs, as at all such elevated domiciles,
the grand difficulty of housekeeping was an insufficiency
of water; and a casual rainfall was utilized by
turning out, as catchers, every utensil that the house
contained. Some queer stories might be told of the
contrivances for economy in suds and dish-waters that
are absolutely necessitated in upland habitations during
the droughts of summer. But at this season there were
no such exigencies; a mere acceptance of what the skies
bestowed was sufficient for an abundant store.
At last the notes of the serpent ceased and the
house was silent. This cessation of activity aroused
the solitary pedestrian from the reverie into which he
had lapsed, and, emerging from the shed, with an
apparently new intention, he walked up the path to
the house-door. Arrived here, his first act was to
kneel down on a large stone beside the row of vessels,
and to drink a copious draught from one of them.
Having quenched his thirst he rose and lifted his hand
to knock, but paused with his eye upon the panel.
Since the dark surface of the wood revealed absolutely
nothing, it was evident that he must be mentally looking
through the door, as if he wished to measure
thereby all the possibilities that a house of this sort
might include, and how they might bear upon the
question of his entry.
In his indecision he turned and surveyed the scene
around. Not a soul was anywhere visible. The
garden-path stretched downward from his feet, gleaming
like the track of a snail the roof of the little well
(mostly dry), the well-cover, the top rail of the
garden-gate, were varnished with the same dull liquid glaze;
while, far away in the vale, a faint whiteness of more
than usual extent showed that the rivers were high in
the meads. Beyond all this winked a few bleared
lamplights through the beating drops - lights that
denoted the situation of the county-town from which he
had appeared to come. The absence of all notes of
life in that direction seemed to clinch his intentions,
and he knocked at the door.
Within, a desultory chat had taken the place of
movement and musical sound. The hedge-carpenter
was suggesting a song to the company, which nobody
just then was inclined to undertake, so that the knock
afforded a not unwelcome diversion.
"Walk in!" said the shepherd promptly.
The latch clicked upward, and out of the night our
pedestrian appeared upon the door-mat. The shepherd
arose, snuffed two of the nearest candles, and turned to
look at him.
Their light disclosed that the stranger was dark in
complexion and not unprepossessing as to feature. His
hat, which for a moment he did not remove, hung
low over his eyes, without concealing that they were
large, open, and determined, moving with a flash rather
than a glance round the room. He seemed pleased
with his survey, and, baring his shaggy head, said, in
a rich deep voice, "The rain is so heavy, friends, that
I ask leave to come in and rest awhile."
"To be sure, stranger," said the shepherd. "And
faith, you've been lucky in choosing your time, for we
are having a bit of a fling for a glad cause - though, to
be sure, a man could hardly wish that glad cause to
happen more than once a year."
"Nor less," spoke up a woman. 'For 'tis best to
get your family over and done with, as soon as you
can, so as to be all the earlier out of the fag o't."
"And what may be this glad cause?" asked the
"A birth and christening," said the shepherd.
The stranger hoped his host might not be made
unhappy either by too many or too few of such episodes,
and being invited by a gesture to a pull at the mug,
he readily acquiesced. His manner, which, before
entering, had been so dubious, was now altogether that of a
careless and candid man.
"Late to be traipsing athwart this coomb - hey?"
said the engaged man of fifty.
"Late it is, master, as you say. - I'll take a seat
in the chimney-corner, if you have nothing to urge against
it, ma'am; for I am a little moist on the side that was
next the rain."
Mrs. Shepherd Fennel assented, and made room
for the self-invited comer, who, having got completely
inside the chimney-corner, stretched out his legs and
his arms with the expansiveness of a person quite at
"Yes, I am rather cracked in the vamp," he said
freely, seeing that the eyes of the shepherd's wife fell upon his
boots, "and I am not well fitted either. I have had
some rough times lately, and have been forced to pick
up what I can get in the way of wearing, but I must
find a suit better fit for working-days when I reach
"One of hereabouts?" she inquired.
"Not quite that - further up the country."
"I thought so. And so be I; and by your tongue
you come from my neighbourhood."
"But you would hardly have heard of me," he said
quickly. "My time would be long before yours, ma'am,
This testimony to the youthfulness of his hostess
had the effect of stopping her cross-examination.
"There is only one thing more wanted to make me
happy," continued the new-comer. "And that is a little
baccy, which I am sorry to say I am out of."
"I'll fill your pipe," said the shepherd.
"I must ask you to lend me a pipe likewise."
"A smoker, and no pipe about 'ee?"
"I have dropped it somewhere on the road."
The shepherd filled and handed him a new clay pipe,
saying, as he did so, "Hand me your baccy-box - I'll
fill that too, now I am about it."
The man went through the movement of searching
"Lost that too?"' said his entertainer, with some
"I am afraid so," said the man with some confusion.
"Give it to me in a screw of paper." Lighting his pipe
at the candle with a suction that drew the whole flame
into the bowl, he resettled himself in the corner and
bent his looks upon the faint steam from his damp legs,
as if he wished to say no more.
Meanwhile the general body of guests had been taking
little notice of this visitor by reason of an absorbing
discussion in which they were engaged with the band
about a tune for the next dance. The matter being
settled, they were about to stand up when an interruption
came in the shape of another knock at the door.
At sound of the same the man in the chimney-corner
took up the poker and began stirring the brands
as if doing it thoroughly were the one aim of his existence;
and a second time the shepherd said, 'Walk in!"
In a moment another man stood upon the straw-woven
door-mat. He too was a stranger.
This individual was one of a type radically
different from the first. There was more of the commonplace
in his manner, and a certain jovial cosmopolitanism
sat upon his features. He was several years older
than the first arrival, his hair being slightly frosted,
his eyebrows bristly, and his whiskers cut back from
his cheeks. His face was rather full and flabby, and
yet it was not altogether a face without power. A few
grog-blossoms marked the neighbourhood of his nose.
He flung back his long drab greatcoat, revealing that
beneath it he wore a suit of cinder-gray shade throughout,
large heavy seals, of some metal or other that
would take a polish, dangling from his fob as his only
personal ornament. Shaking the water-drops from his
low-crowned glazed hat, he said, "I must ask for a few
minutes' shelter, comrades, or I shall be wetted to my
skin before I get to Casterbridge."
"Make yourself at home, master," said the shepherd,
perhaps a trifle less heartily than on the first occasion.
Not that Fennel had the least tinge of niggardliness
in his composition; but the room was far from large,
spare chairs were not numerous, and damp companions
were not altogether desirable at close quarters for the
women and girls in their bright-coloured gowns.
However, the second comer, after taking off his
greatcoat, and hanging his hat on a nail in one of the
ceiling-beams as if he had been specially invited to put
it there, advanced and sat down at the table. This had
been pushed so closely into the chimney-corner, to give
all available room to the dancers, that its inner edge
grazed the elbow of the man who had ensconced himself
by the fire; and thus the two strangers were
brought into close companionship. They nodded to
each other by way of breaking the ice of unacquaintance,
and the first stranger handed his neighbour the family
mug - a huge vessel of brown ware, having its upper
edge worn away like a threshold by the rub of whole
generations of thirsty lips that had gone the way of all
flesh, and bearing the following inscription burnt upon
its rotund side in yellow letters: -
THERE IS NO FUN
UNTILL i CUM.
The other man, nothing loth, 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
before 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 elevation.
"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 ourselves can make shift with a drop o'
small mead and metheglin for common use from the
"O, 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 'tis 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 the
gallon - with its due complement of white 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
"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 into your dwelling, 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
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 shan'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'
"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
"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
"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 wheel-wright."
"A very good trade for these parts," said the
"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
own hands. "My fingers be as full of thorns as an
old pin-cushion 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
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 arm-hole of his waistcoat,
he waved the other hand in the air, and, with an
extemporizing gaze at the shining sheep-crooks above the
mantelpiece, began: -
"O 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 were merely singing an old song from
recollection, or was 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 inwards, and went on with the next stanza as
"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
suppressed 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.
"O, he's the - !" whispered the people in the
background, mentioning the name of an ominous public
officer. 'He's come to do it! 'Tis to be at
Casterbridge jail to-morrow - the man for
sheep-stealing - the poor clock-maker we heard of,
who used to live away at Shottsford and had no work
to do - Timothy Summers, whose family were a-starving,
and so he went out of Shottsford by the high-road, and
took a sheep in open daylight, defying the farmer and
the farmer's wife and the farmer's lad, and every man
jack among 'em. He' (and they nodded towards the stranger
of the deadly 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 towards 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 towards 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 amongst 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 cups 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' merc-y!"
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 further and further 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 has escaped from the jail - that's what
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
"I wonder if it is my man?" murmured the
personage in cinder-gray.
"Surely it is!" said the shepherd involuntarily.
"And surely we've zeed him! That little man who looked
in at the door by now, and quivered like a leaf when he
zeed 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
"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 hangman.
"We were all a-wondering what made him run off in
such a fright," faltered one of the women against the
wall, "and now 'tis 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 from
the wall, his betrothed beginning to sob on the back of
"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
go home and get it, and come sharp here, and start in
"Staff! - never mind your staff; the man'll be
"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, 'tis 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 up him he might
take up me!"
"Now, I'm a king's man myself, and can give you
authority enough for this," said the formidable officer
in gray. "Now then, all of ye, be ready. Have ye
"Yes - have ye any lanterns? - I demand it!" said
"And the rest of you able-bodied - "
"Able-bodied men - yes - the rest of ye!" said the
"Have you some good stout staves and
pitch-forks - "
"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 heart-brokenly 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 - his friend in cinder-gray.
"O - 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
"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, 'tis the business
o' the Government to take care of its criminals - not
"True; so it is. And I felt as you did, that there
were enough without me."
"I don't want to break my limbs running over the
humps and hollows of this wild country."
"Nor I neither, between you and me."
"These shepherd-people are used to it - simple-minded
souls, you know, stirred up to anything in 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
'tis 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
The other had by this time finished the mead in
the mug, after which, shaking hands heartily at the
door, and wishing each other well, they went their
In the meantime the company of pursuers had
reached the end of the hog's-back elevation which
dominated this part of the down. 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 party fell into the snare set
by Nature for all misguided midnight ramblers over
this part of the cretaceous formation. The "lanchets,"
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 downwards, 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 defile,
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 ash, the single tree on this part of the
coomb, probably sown there by a passing bird some
fifty 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. ''T'isn'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 Father - the Crown, I
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
towards them. He was, indeed, the little man, the
third stranger; but his trepidation had in a great
"Well, travellers," he said, "did I hear ye speak to
"You did: you've got to come and be our prisoner
at once!" said the constable. "We arrest 'ee on the
charge of not biding in Casterbridge jail 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 towards 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 two officers from
Casterbridge jail, 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 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 who sat there?" Here he related
the strange behaviour of the third stranger on
entering the house during the hangman's song.
"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 - 'twas 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 'twas the man in the
"A pretty kettle of fish altogether!" said the
magistrate. "You had better start for the other man
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 Shottsford to tramp it all the way
to Casterbridge jail 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 all
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
"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
"He's a watch-and-clock-maker, sir."
"'A said 'a was a wheelwright - a wicked rogue,"
said the constable.
"The wheels of 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," said the
magistrate; "your business lies with the other,
And so the little man was released off-hand; but he
looked nothing the less sad on that account, it being
beyond the power of magistrate or constable to raze 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 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 in hob-and-nobbing with the hangman,
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 genial 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 sere 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
- by Thomas Hardy, March 1883, from Wessex Tales.