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The Three Strangers

[From Wessex Tales.]


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 southwest. 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
neighboring 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
second girl.

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 neighboring 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

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
favorite 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 an hour.

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 cottage.

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 shelter.

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
dishwaters 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 elapsed, 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 stranger.

"A birth and christening," said the shepherd.

The stranger hoped his host might not be made unhappy either by too
many or two 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 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 home."

"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

"But you would hardly have heard of me," he said quickly. "My time
would be long before yours, ma'am, you see."

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 his pockets.

"Lost that too?" said his entertainer, with some surprise.

"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 neighborhood 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-colored 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 neighbor 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:


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

"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 comb-washings."

"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 humor.

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

"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 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

"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

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 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 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 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 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 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

"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 toward 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 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 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

"... 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

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

"What does that mean?" asked several.

"A prisoner escaped from the jail--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 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

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

"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

"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 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 go 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, '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 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 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 old

"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

"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 labor in the

"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 before bedtime."

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 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 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 downward, the lanterns rolling from their hands to
the bottom, and there lying on their sides till the horn was scorched

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

"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 Father--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 you speak to me?"

"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.
Neighbors, 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 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

"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 behavior 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 chimney-corner!"

"A pretty kettle of fish altogether!" said the magistrate. "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 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
know 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

"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 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, unquestionably."

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 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 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 honor 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 Crowstairs.

March, 1883.

Thomas Hardy