Thomas Hardy.

Under the Greenwood Tree, or, the Mellstock quire; a rural painting of the Dutch school online

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Transcribed by David Price, email [email protected] from the 1912
Macmillan and Co. edition. Proofed by Margaret Rose Price, Dagny and
David Price.

by Thomas Hardy


This story of the Mellstock Quire and its old established west-gallery
musicians, with some supplementary descriptions of similar officials in
Two on a Tower, A Few Crusted Characters, and other places, is intended
to be a fairly true picture, at first hand, of the personages, ways, and
customs which were common among such orchestral bodies in the villages of
fifty or sixty years ago.

One is inclined to regret the displacement of these ecclesiastical
bandsmen by an isolated organist (often at first a barrel-organist) or
harmonium player; and despite certain advantages in point of control and
accomplishment which were, no doubt, secured by installing the single
artist, the change has tended to stultify the professed aims of the
clergy, its direct result being to curtail and extinguish the interest of
parishioners in church doings. Under the old plan, from half a dozen to
ten full-grown players, in addition to the numerous more or less grown-up
singers, were officially occupied with the Sunday routine, and concerned
in trying their best to make it an artistic outcome of the combined
musical taste of the congregation. With a musical executive limited, as
it mostly is limited now, to the parson's wife or daughter and the school-
children, or to the school-teacher and the children, an important union
of interests has disappeared.

The zest of these bygone instrumentalists must have been keen and staying
to take them, as it did, on foot every Sunday after a toilsome week,
through all weathers, to the church, which often lay at a distance from
their homes. They usually received so little in payment for their
performances that their efforts were really a labour of love. In the
parish I had in my mind when writing the present tale, the gratuities
received yearly by the musicians at Christmas were somewhat as follows:
From the manor-house ten shillings and a supper; from the vicar ten
shillings; from the farmers five shillings each; from each
cottage-household one shilling; amounting altogether to not more than ten
shillings a head annually - just enough, as an old executant told me, to
pay for their fiddle-strings, repairs, rosin, and music-paper (which they
mostly ruled themselves). Their music in those days was all in their own
manuscript, copied in the evenings after work, and their music-books were

It was customary to inscribe a few jigs, reels, horn-pipes, and ballads
in the same book, by beginning it at the other end, the insertions being
continued from front and back till sacred and secular met together in the
middle, often with bizarre effect, the words of some of the songs
exhibiting that ancient and broad humour which our grandfathers, and
possibly grandmothers, took delight in, and is in these days unquotable.

The aforesaid fiddle-strings, rosin, and music-paper were supplied by a
pedlar, who travelled exclusively in such wares from parish to parish,
coming to each village about every six months. Tales are told of the
consternation once caused among the church fiddlers when, on the occasion
of their producing a new Christmas anthem, he did not come to time, owing
to being snowed up on the downs, and the straits they were in through
having to make shift with whipcord and twine for strings. He was
generally a musician himself, and sometimes a composer in a small way,
bringing his own new tunes, and tempting each choir to adopt them for a
consideration. Some of these compositions which now lie before me, with
their repetitions of lines, half-lines, and half-words, their fugues and
their intermediate symphonies, are good singing still, though they would
hardly be admitted into such hymn-books as are popular in the churches of
fashionable society at the present time.

August 1896.

Under the Greenwood Tree was first brought out in the summer of 1872 in
two volumes. The name of the story was originally intended to be, more
appropriately, The Mellstock Quire, and this has been appended as a sub-
title since the early editions, it having been thought unadvisable to
displace for it the title by which the book first became known.

In rereading the narrative after a long interval there occurs the
inevitable reflection that the realities out of which it was spun were
material for another kind of study of this little group of church
musicians than is found in the chapters here penned so lightly, even so
farcically and flippantly at times. But circumstances would have
rendered any aim at a deeper, more essential, more transcendent handling
unadvisable at the date of writing; and the exhibition of the Mellstock
Quire in the following pages must remain the only extant one, except for
the few glimpses of that perished band which I have given in verse

T. H.
April 1912.



To dwellers in a wood almost every species of tree has its voice as well
as its feature. At the passing of the breeze the fir-trees sob and moan
no less distinctly than they rock; the holly whistles as it battles with
itself; the ash hisses amid its quiverings; the beech rustles while its
flat boughs rise and fall. And winter, which modifies the note of such
trees as shed their leaves, does not destroy its individuality.

On a cold and starry Christmas-eve within living memory a man was passing
up a lane towards Mellstock Cross in the darkness of a plantation that
whispered thus distinctively to his intelligence. All the evidences of
his nature were those afforded by the spirit of his footsteps, which
succeeded each other lightly and quickly, and by the liveliness of his
voice as he sang in a rural cadence:

"With the rose and the lily
And the daffodowndilly,
The lads and the lasses a-sheep-shearing go."

The lonely lane he was following connected one of the hamlets of
Mellstock parish with Upper Mellstock and Lewgate, and to his eyes,
casually glancing upward, the silver and black-stemmed birches with their
characteristic tufts, the pale grey boughs of beech, the dark-creviced
elm, all appeared now as black and flat outlines upon the sky, wherein
the white stars twinkled so vehemently that their flickering seemed like
the flapping of wings. Within the woody pass, at a level anything lower
than the horizon, all was dark as the grave. The copse-wood forming the
sides of the bower interlaced its branches so densely, even at this
season of the year, that the draught from the north-east flew along the
channel with scarcely an interruption from lateral breezes.

After passing the plantation and reaching Mellstock Cross the white
surface of the lane revealed itself between the dark hedgerows like a
ribbon jagged at the edges; the irregularity being caused by temporary
accumulations of leaves extending from the ditch on either side.

The song (many times interrupted by flitting thoughts which took the
place of several bars, and resumed at a point it would have reached had
its continuity been unbroken) now received a more palpable check, in the
shape of "Ho-i-i-i-i-i!" from the crossing lane to Lower Mellstock, on
the right of the singer who had just emerged from the trees.

"Ho-i-i-i-i-i!" he answered, stopping and looking round, though with no
idea of seeing anything more than imagination pictured.

"Is that thee, young Dick Dewy?" came from the darkness.

"Ay, sure, Michael Mail."

"Then why not stop for fellow-craters - going to thy own father's house
too, as we be, and knowen us so well?"

Dick Dewy faced about and continued his tune in an under-whistle,
implying that the business of his mouth could not be checked at a
moment's notice by the placid emotion of friendship.

Having come more into the open he could now be seen rising against the
sky, his profile appearing on the light background like the portrait of a
gentleman in black cardboard. It assumed the form of a low-crowned hat,
an ordinary-shaped nose, an ordinary chin, an ordinary neck, and ordinary
shoulders. What he consisted of further down was invisible from lack of
sky low enough to picture him on.

Shuffling, halting, irregular footsteps of various kinds were now heard
coming up the hill, and presently there emerged from the shade severally
five men of different ages and gaits, all of them working villagers of
the parish of Mellstock. They, too, had lost their rotundity with the
daylight, and advanced against the sky in flat outlines, which suggested
some processional design on Greek or Etruscan pottery. They represented
the chief portion of Mellstock parish choir.

The first was a bowed and bent man, who carried a fiddle under his arm,
and walked as if engaged in studying some subject connected with the
surface of the road. He was Michael Mail, the man who had hallooed to

The next was Mr. Robert Penny, boot- and shoemaker; a little man, who,
though rather round-shouldered, walked as if that fact had not come to
his own knowledge, moving on with his back very hollow and his face fixed
on the north-east quarter of the heavens before him, so that his lower
waist-coat-buttons came first, and then the remainder of his figure. His
features were invisible; yet when he occasionally looked round, two faint
moons of light gleamed for an instant from the precincts of his eyes,
denoting that he wore spectacles of a circular form.

The third was Elias Spinks, who walked perpendicularly and dramatically.
The fourth outline was Joseph Bowman's, who had now no distinctive
appearance beyond that of a human being. Finally came a weak lath-like
form, trotting and stumbling along with one shoulder forward and his head
inclined to the left, his arms dangling nervelessly in the wind as if
they were empty sleeves. This was Thomas Leaf.

"Where be the boys?" said Dick to this somewhat indifferently-matched

The eldest of the group, Michael Mail, cleared his throat from a great

"We told them to keep back at home for a time, thinken they wouldn't be
wanted yet awhile; and we could choose the tuens, and so on."

"Father and grandfather William have expected ye a little sooner. I have
just been for a run round by Ewelease Stile and Hollow Hill to warm my

"To be sure father did! To be sure 'a did expect us - to taste the little
barrel beyond compare that he's going to tap."

"'Od rabbit it all! Never heard a word of it!" said Mr. Penny, gleams of
delight appearing upon his spectacle-glasses, Dick meanwhile singing
parenthetically -

"The lads and the lasses a-sheep-shearing go."

"Neighbours, there's time enough to drink a sight of drink now afore
bedtime?" said Mail.

"True, true - time enough to get as drunk as lords!" replied Bowman

This opinion being taken as convincing they all advanced between the
varying hedges and the trees dotting them here and there, kicking their
toes occasionally among the crumpled leaves. Soon appeared glimmering
indications of the few cottages forming the small hamlet of Upper
Mellstock for which they were bound, whilst the faint sound of church-
bells ringing a Christmas peal could be heard floating over upon the
breeze from the direction of Longpuddle and Weatherbury parishes on the
other side of the hills. A little wicket admitted them to the garden,
and they proceeded up the path to Dick's house.


It was a long low cottage with a hipped roof of thatch, having dormer
windows breaking up into the eaves, a chimney standing in the middle of
the ridge and another at each end. The window-shutters were not yet
closed, and the fire- and candle-light within radiated forth upon the
thick bushes of box and laurestinus growing in clumps outside, and upon
the bare boughs of several codlin-trees hanging about in various
distorted shapes, the result of early training as espaliers combined with
careless climbing into their boughs in later years. The walls of the
dwelling were for the most part covered with creepers, though these were
rather beaten back from the doorway - a feature which was worn and
scratched by much passing in and out, giving it by day the appearance of
an old keyhole. Light streamed through the cracks and joints of
outbuildings a little way from the cottage, a sight which nourished a
fancy that the purpose of the erection must be rather to veil bright
attractions than to shelter unsightly necessaries. The noise of a beetle
and wedges and the splintering of wood was periodically heard from this
direction; and at some little distance further a steady regular munching
and the occasional scurr of a rope betokened a stable, and horses feeding
within it.

The choir stamped severally on the door-stone to shake from their boots
any fragment of earth or leaf adhering thereto, then entered the house
and looked around to survey the condition of things. Through the open
doorway of a small inner room on the right hand, of a character between
pantry and cellar, was Dick Dewy's father Reuben, by vocation a
"tranter," or irregular carrier. He was a stout florid man about forty
years of age, who surveyed people up and down when first making their
acquaintance, and generally smiled at the horizon or other distant object
during conversations with friends, walking about with a steady sway, and
turning out his toes very considerably. Being now occupied in bending
over a hogshead, that stood in the pantry ready horsed for the process of
broaching, he did not take the trouble to turn or raise his eyes at the
entry of his visitors, well knowing by their footsteps that they were the
expected old comrades.

The main room, on the left, was decked with bunches of holly and other
evergreens, and from the middle of the beam bisecting the ceiling hung
the mistletoe, of a size out of all proportion to the room, and extending
so low that it became necessary for a full-grown person to walk round it
in passing, or run the risk of entangling his hair. This apartment
contained Mrs. Dewy the tranter's wife, and the four remaining children,
Susan, Jim, Bessy, and Charley, graduating uniformly though at wide
stages from the age of sixteen to that of four years - the eldest of the
series being separated from Dick the firstborn by a nearly equal

Some circumstance had apparently caused much grief to Charley just
previous to the entry of the choir, and he had absently taken down a
small looking-glass, holding it before his face to learn how the human
countenance appeared when engaged in crying, which survey led him to
pause at the various points in each wail that were more than ordinarily
striking, for a thorough appreciation of the general effect. Bessy was
leaning against a chair, and glancing under the plaits about the waist of
the plaid frock she wore, to notice the original unfaded pattern of the
material as there preserved, her face bearing an expression of regret
that the brightness had passed away from the visible portions. Mrs. Dewy
sat in a brown settle by the side of the glowing wood fire - so glowing
that with a heedful compression of the lips she would now and then rise
and put her hand upon the hams and flitches of bacon lining the chimney,
to reassure herself that they were not being broiled instead of smoked - a
misfortune that had been known to happen now and then at Christmas-time.

"Hullo, my sonnies, here you be, then!" said Reuben Dewy at length,
standing up and blowing forth a vehement gust of breath. "How the blood
do puff up in anybody's head, to be sure, a-stooping like that! I was
just going out to gate to hark for ye." He then carefully began to wind
a strip of brown paper round a brass tap he held in his hand. "This in
the cask here is a drop o' the right sort" (tapping the cask); "'tis a
real drop o' cordial from the best picked apples - Sansoms, Stubbards,
Five-corners, and such-like - you d'mind the sort, Michael?" (Michael
nodded.) "And there's a sprinkling of they that grow down by the orchard-
rails - streaked ones - rail apples we d'call 'em, as 'tis by the rails
they grow, and not knowing the right name. The water-cider from 'em is
as good as most people's best cider is."

"Ay, and of the same make too," said Bowman. "'It rained when we wrung
it out, and the water got into it,' folk will say. But 'tis on'y an
excuse. Watered cider is too common among us."

"Yes, yes; too common it is!" said Spinks with an inward sigh, whilst his
eyes seemed to be looking at the case in an abstract form rather than at
the scene before him. "Such poor liquor do make a man's throat feel very
melancholy - and is a disgrace to the name of stimmilent."

"Come in, come in, and draw up to the fire; never mind your shoes," said
Mrs. Dewy, seeing that all except Dick had paused to wipe them upon the
door-mat. "I am glad that you've stepped up-along at last; and, Susan,
you run down to Grammer Kaytes's and see if you can borrow some larger
candles than these fourteens. Tommy Leaf, don't ye be afeard! Come and
sit here in the settle."

This was addressed to the young man before mentioned, consisting chiefly
of a human skeleton and a smock-frock, who was very awkward in his
movements, apparently on account of having grown so very fast that before
he had had time to get used to his height he was higher.

"Hee - hee - ay!" replied Leaf, letting his mouth continue to smile for
some time after his mind had done smiling, so that his teeth remained in
view as the most conspicuous members of his body.

"Here, Mr. Penny," resumed Mrs. Dewy, "you sit in this chair. And how's
your daughter, Mrs. Brownjohn?"

"Well, I suppose I must say pretty fair." He adjusted his spectacles a
quarter of an inch to the right. "But she'll be worse before she's
better, 'a b'lieve."

"Indeed - poor soul! And how many will that make in all, four or five?"

"Five; they've buried three. Yes, five; and she not much more than a
maid yet. She do know the multiplication table onmistakable well.
However, 'twas to be, and none can gainsay it."

Mrs. Dewy resigned Mr. Penny. "Wonder where your grandfather James is?"
she inquired of one of the children. "He said he'd drop in to-night."

"Out in fuel-house with grandfather William," said Jimmy.

"Now let's see what we can do," was heard spoken about this time by the
tranter in a private voice to the barrel, beside which he had again
established himself, and was stooping to cut away the cork.

"Reuben, don't make such a mess o' tapping that barrel as is mostly made
in this house," Mrs. Dewy cried from the fireplace. "I'd tap a hundred
without wasting more than you do in one. Such a squizzling and squirting
job as 'tis in your hands! There, he always was such a clumsy man

"Ay, ay; I know you'd tap a hundred beautiful, Ann - I know you would; two
hundred, perhaps. But I can't promise. This is a' old cask, and the
wood's rotted away about the tap-hole. The husbird of a feller Sam
Lawson - that ever I should call'n such, now he's dead and gone, poor
heart! - took me in completely upon the feat of buying this cask. 'Reub,'
says he - 'a always used to call me plain Reub, poor old heart! - 'Reub,'
he said, says he, 'that there cask, Reub, is as good as new; yes, good as
new. 'Tis a wine-hogshead; the best port-wine in the commonwealth have
been in that there cask; and you shall have en for ten shillens,
Reub,' - 'a said, says he - 'he's worth twenty, ay, five-and-twenty, if
he's worth one; and an iron hoop or two put round en among the wood ones
will make en worth thirty shillens of any man's money, if - '"

"I think I should have used the eyes that Providence gave me to use afore
I paid any ten shillens for a jimcrack wine-barrel; a saint is sinner
enough not to be cheated. But 'tis like all your family was, so easy to
be deceived."

"That's as true as gospel of this member," said Reuben.

Mrs. Dewy began a smile at the answer, then altering her lips and
refolding them so that it was not a smile, commenced smoothing little
Bessy's hair; the tranter having meanwhile suddenly become oblivious to
conversation, occupying himself in a deliberate cutting and arrangement
of some more brown paper for the broaching operation.

"Ah, who can believe sellers!" said old Michael Mail in a
carefully-cautious voice, by way of tiding-over this critical point of

"No one at all," said Joseph Bowman, in the tone of a man fully agreeing
with everybody.

"Ay," said Mail, in the tone of a man who did not agree with everybody as
a rule, though he did now; "I knowed a' auctioneering feller once - a very
friendly feller 'a was too. And so one hot day as I was walking down the
front street o' Casterbridge, jist below the King's Arms, I passed a'
open winder and see him inside, stuck upon his perch, a-selling off. I
jist nodded to en in a friendly way as I passed, and went my way, and
thought no more about it. Well, next day, as I was oilen my boots by
fuel-house door, if a letter didn't come wi' a bill charging me with a
feather-bed, bolster, and pillers, that I had bid for at Mr. Taylor's
sale. The slim-faced martel had knocked 'em down to me because I nodded
to en in my friendly way; and I had to pay for 'em too. Now, I hold that
that was coming it very close, Reuben?"

"'Twas close, there's no denying," said the general voice.

"Too close, 'twas," said Reuben, in the rear of the rest. "And as to Sam
Lawson - poor heart! now he's dead and gone too! - I'll warrant, that if so
be I've spent one hour in making hoops for that barrel, I've spent fifty,
first and last. That's one of my hoops" - touching it with his
elbow - "that's one of mine, and that, and that, and all these."

"Ah, Sam was a man," said Mr. Penny, contemplatively.

"Sam was!" said Bowman.

"Especially for a drap o' drink," said the tranter.

"Good, but not religious-good," suggested Mr. Penny.

The tranter nodded. Having at last made the tap and hole quite ready,
"Now then, Suze, bring a mug," he said. "Here's luck to us, my sonnies!"

The tap went in, and the cider immediately squirted out in a horizontal
shower over Reuben's hands, knees, and leggings, and into the eyes and
neck of Charley, who, having temporarily put off his grief under pressure
of more interesting proceedings, was squatting down and blinking near his

"There 'tis again!" said Mrs. Dewy.

"Devil take the hole, the cask, and Sam Lawson too, that good cider
should be wasted like this!" exclaimed the tranter. "Your thumb! Lend
me your thumb, Michael! Ram it in here, Michael! I must get a bigger
tap, my sonnies."

"Idd it cold inthide te hole?" inquired Charley of Michael, as he
continued in a stooping posture with his thumb in the cork-hole.

"What wonderful odds and ends that chiel has in his head to be sure!"
Mrs. Dewy admiringly exclaimed from the distance. "I lay a wager that he
thinks more about how 'tis inside that barrel than in all the other parts
of the world put together."

All persons present put on a speaking countenance of admiration for the
cleverness alluded to, in the midst of which Reuben returned. The
operation was then satisfactorily performed; when Michael arose and
stretched his head to the extremest fraction of height that his body
would allow of, to re-straighten his back and shoulders - thrusting out
his arms and twisting his features to a mass of wrinkles to emphasize the
relief aquired. A quart or two of the beverage was then brought to
table, at which all the new arrivals reseated themselves with wide-spread
knees, their eyes meditatively seeking out any speck or knot in the board
upon which the gaze might precipitate itself.

"Whatever is father a-biding out in fuel-house so long for?" said the
tranter. "Never such a man as father for two things - cleaving up old
dead apple-tree wood and playing the bass-viol. 'A'd pass his life
between the two, that 'a would." He stepped to the door and opened it.


"Ay!" rang thinly from round the corner.

"Here's the barrel tapped, and we all a-waiting!"

A series of dull thuds, that had been heard without for some time past,
now ceased; and after the light of a lantern had passed the window and
made wheeling rays upon the ceiling inside the eldest of the Dewy family


William Dewy - otherwise grandfather William - was now about seventy; yet

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Online LibraryThomas HardyUnder the Greenwood Tree, or, the Mellstock quire; a rural painting of the Dutch school → online text (page 1 of 14)